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.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Koreans watch a TV news program about American missionary Robert Park at the Seoul Railway Station on Friday.

A 28-year-old American missionary apparently is getting a reprieve from the North Koreans after having entered the North on Christmas Eve declaring that he was “bringing God’s love to you” and carrying a message of “peace and goodwill” to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

Instead, according to comments attributed to Robert Park by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, the North Koreans have convinced him that he was wrong in his view of the North, whose "concentration camps," Mr. Park said in an earlier interview with Reuters, were "of the same brutality as in Nazi Germany."

In the same report in which the KCNA dispatch announced that Park would be freed, he was quoted as saying that “people have been incredibly kind and generous here to me, very concerned for my physical health as never before in my life.” He was, he was quoted as saying, “very thankful for their love.”

Those who befriended Park in his crusade for human rights in North Korea believe the quotes are probably accurate and that North Korea would indeed let him go as announced. But they also say he had no choice but to praise the North Koreans unstintingly as the price to pay for going home.

 “There’s a possibility of brainwashing after 42 days in North Korea,” says Jo Sung-rae, leader of a group here called Pax Koreana that has collaborated in demonstrations and statements with Park’s organization, “Freedom and Life for all North Koreans.”

 Mr. Jo is confident Park will keep up his campaign after his release. “While he was in North Korea, maybe God impressed him with what he can do after his release.”
 As for the remarks attributed to Park by KCNA, Jo says, “maybe they were half his will – and half God’s will.”

To human rights workers, Park a hero

No matter what, Jo and other campaigners for human rights in North Korea view Park as a hero for having dared to walk across the frozen Tumen River border with China and hand himself over to a North Korean guard.

Regardless of whether the dear leader, Mr. Kim, ever saw the letter he was carrying, no one doubts that Kim is fully aware of all that Park stands for – and carefully calculated how long to hold him.

“Maybe they hesitated at first on how to deal with him,” says Kwon Il-young, an editor at Daily NK, which often carries reports based on secret sources inside North Korea. “They may have watched to see how the American government approached them.”

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.

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.”

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