American missionary allegedly held by North Korea. A 'gift' to Pyongyang?

North Korea said it has detained a US citizen, widely believed to be Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary who crossed the border into North Korea with a message for the regime to close all labor camps. His fate could be tied up in the future of six-party talks.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters/File
Robert Park in Seoul in this December 22 file photo. The US human rights activist trying to raise global attention about the suffering of the North Korean people had crossed the border into the state on Christmas Eve.

A 28-year-old Korean-American crossed a frozen river border into North Korea on Christmas Eve with a message of “love and forgiveness” for leader Kim Jong-il but now appears to be in need of Mr. Kim’s mercy to be able to leave.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that “authorities” have detained a "US citizen" who entered North Korea “illegally” from China ,and that he’s “under investigation by a relevant organ.”

The person under detention is assumed to be Robert Park, who walked across the ice of the narrow Tumen River bearing a letter that a South Korean website quotes as asking him to “open your borders,” “close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners…..”

That message is sure to upset North Korean authorities, who deny any human rights abuses, but the question now is how much difficulty Mr. Park faces before Kim Jong-il decides it’s time to let him go.

The case “could be a touchstone or bellwether of how US-Korean relations are going,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, a long-time Korea expert based in England. “I imagine, if they want to make a point, they will hold him a while.”

The fate of Mr. Park, leader of a coalition of Christian activists that is conducting a worldwide campaign on North Korean human rights abuses, may revolve around US efforts at getting North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program. Stephen Bosworth, US envoy on North Korea, visited the North earlier this month for what he described as “useful” talks on a wide range of issues that might come up in the context of negotiations.

Mr. Foster-Carter, honorary fellow at Leeds University, says the case “causes at least a minor headache for the US State Department,” but adds, “I don’t think they’ll hold him for very long” – “a few months maximum.”

The case conjures memories of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were picked up in March along the Tumen River border while filming a story about North Korean refugees for Current TV network. They were held for 140 days and sentenced to 12 years in prison, before former US President Bill Clinton arrived on a chartered jet in early August, met and dined for three hours with Kim Jong-il, and then returned to California with both of them safely aboard his plane.

'A gift to the Pyongyang regime'

A State Department spokesman indicated the US is concerned but still awaiting confirmation that Park is being held. That word should come from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles diplomatic issues for the US in the absence of US relations with Pyongyang. The Swedish ambassador also called on Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee while they were being held in what was described as “a state guest house.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, applauds Park’s “moral courage” – but not his deed.

Park’s “excursion into North Korea was a foolhardy stunt that can’t help but complicate diplomacy,” he says. “It’s a gift to the Pyongyang regime, which can be expected to seek to bargain his freedom for diplomatic or PR advantage.”

He doubts “the White House or State Department will be inclined to want to give away anything to gain Park’s freedom, especially since he might decide in the future to do it again.” The case, he adds, is “not so much [an] embarrassment as an unnecessary encumbrance.”

Ha Tae-hyun, president of Open Radio for North Korea, points out one significant difference between the cases, however, that may not work in Park’s favor.

Ling and Lee “did not enter North Korea intentionally,” he says. “My assessment is emotionally Kim Jong-il will be very upset by this case.”

Mr. Ha, whose radio station beams two hours of news and views into North Korea every day from Seoul, notes that North Korea routinely punishes secret Christians. “If he were North Korean, he would be executed or go to a gulag,” says Ha.

In this case, he says, “I think Kim Jong-il needs time to think about it” – and the outcome will depend on Park’s utility as a diplomatic pawn.

“If he reaches the conclusion he’s useless, he will be expelled,” says Ha. “Another scenario is to negotiate his case with the US” – and demand “some aid from the US in return.”

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who was expelled 10 years ago from North Korea and has been crusading against human rights abuses there ever since, believes the publicity surrounding Park’s entry into North Korea is a definite plus.

“I have to pay my respect to the Christian radicalism of Robert Park,” says Dr. Vollertsen. “I hope that there is a huge diplomatic issue, a controversial debate in all the newspapers and blogs calling him an idiot and making fun about his ‘insanity,’” he continues. “Jesus Christ was also very radical and called crazy.”

Whatever happens to him, Park is sure to appear as a hero to Christian activists as well as his family. His father, Pyong Park, in Tucson, Ariz., quoted him as telling him, “I’m not afraid to die as long as the whole world, every nation, pays attention to the North Korea situation."

Park is quoted in Korea as having declared, "I am an American citizen” bearing “God’s love” as he crossed the Tumen River border from China. “God loves you and God bless you," he was quoted by Jo Sung-rae of Pax Koreana as saying in Korean while two defectors from North Korea watched him walk across the river.

Park’s letter to Kim Jong-il declares the Lord “loves you and wants to save you and all of North Korea today.” The letter promises “food, provisions, medicines, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive” – if Kim Kong-il opens borders – and pleads for him to “allow care teams to enter to minister healing to those who have been tortured and traumatized."

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