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North Korea to release 'thankful' US missionary

North Korea has said it will release US missionary Robert Park, who crossed into North Korea on Christmas Eve bearing a message of 'peace and goodwill' for Kim Jong-il. North Korean officials said the young American had retracted his views of the North as a repressive place.

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In fact, word of Park’s impending release comes after a visit here by Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek. Mr. Campbell declared US-South Korean relations “have never been better” and “we are in lock step on what we should do” vis-a-vis North Korea.

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The sum total of the talks, and comments by both Mr. Yu and Mr. Hyun, is that North Korea has to return to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, as a prerequisite for separate talks on replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace treaty and lifting UN sanctions.

Sign of reconciliation?

Park’s release “is a sign of reconciliation to neighboring countries,” says Ha Tae Young, who operates NK Open Radio, broadcasting news and analysis from a studio here into North Korea. Mr. Ha believes “there might be some underwater talks between North Korea and the US” to bring about Park’s release – and get North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans also are believed to have demanded a written apology from Park for entering North Korea “illegally” – and then have carried with him a Bible and prayer book, accouterments of Christianity that are banned in the North.

KCNA did not say if he had signed a statement, but said the authorities “decided to leniently forgive and release him,” considering that he had shown “sincere repentance of his wrongdoings,” including illegal entry into the North.

North Korean authorities, presumably on orders from Kim, exploited Park’s presence by taking him at least once to one of the two Christian churches in Pyongyang that are widely regarded as showcases for foreign visitors. And the authorities also returned his Bible to him, according to KCNA.

Such treatment “convinced me that I misunderstood,” KCNA quoted Park as saying, and there is “ complete freedom of religion” in the North. He had been fooled, he was reported to have said, by “false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image.”

Kim Bum-soo, publisher of a conservative political journal here that has carried interviews with Park, doubts that he will stick to these words after he leaves North Korea. “He will be different from other people who have been to North Korea,” says Mr. Kim, meaning that he will not have been taken in by propaganda. “It will be very interesting what he will say. He will be very sincere.”

Whatever, says Pax Koreana's Jo, Park's mission to North Korea is “God's victory” in the Lord’s “awesome work to the world.”