Korean-American slips into the North

Missionary says he wants to tell Kim Jong-il to free prisoners and resign

Dec 28,2009
Robert Park
A Korean-American Christian missionary made an unauthorized journey into North Korea on Christmas Day, trying to persuade Kim Jong-il to step down and release political prisoners.

Robert Park, 28, walked across the frozen Tumen River that borders China and North Korea, according to Seoul-based activists.

A member of the multinational group named Liberty and Life for All North Koreans 2009, which promotes human rights in North Korea, said Park carried a letter addressed to Kim Jong-il urging him to open the border so that food and medication aid can reach dying North Koreans and to shut down concentration camps and free all political prisoners. Park is the head of the group.

Another activist who witnessed Park’s crossing said the missionary shouted, “I am an American citizen. I brought God’s love. God loves you and God bless you,” and added Park slipped in through a poorly-guarded area near the northeastern North Korean city of Hoeryong.

In a letter posted on the Web site of another human rights group, Pax Koreana, Park’s parents said they “respect” their son’s willingness to help North Koreans.

North Korea’s state-run media have remained silent through press time last night. The U.S. embassies in Seoul and Beijing said they were aware of Park’s entry but offered no details.

The U.S. State Department also kept mum. When asked to address the incident, spokesman Andrew Laine said, “The U.S. government places the highest priority on the protection and welfare of American citizens.”

Park’s illegal crossing could add a new complication to the U.S. efforts to persuade North Korea to return to stalled six-party nuclear talks. North Korea doesn’t take outside criticism of its regime particularly well and interprets it as a challenge to its “Dear Leader.” The North’s criminal code punishes unauthorized entry with several years in a labor camp.

Earlier this month, the United States and North Korea met for their first bilateral meeting under the Obama administration and reached a mutual agreement on the importance of the resumption of the six-party talks. No date has been scheduled for a next meeting, but Pyongyang said it would keep cooperating with Washington to narrow their differences.

Last March, two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, crossed the Tumen River into the North during a reporting trip and were detained for nearly five months. After they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for “hostile acts,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il and gained their release in August.

But before his departure, Park told Reuters that he was willing to be a martyr for incarcerated North Koreans and that he didn’t want the U.S. government to negotiate his release.

“I don’t want President Obama to come and pay to get me out. But I want the North Korean people to be free,” Park was quoted as saying. “Until the concentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out. If I have to die with them, I will. [For] these innocent men, women and children, as Christians, we need to take the cross for them. The cross means that we sacrifice our lives for the redemption of others.”

The United States and North Korea don’t have formal diplomatic ties, and Washington has to rely on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang as the contact point.

The South Korean and the United States governments estimate that the North holds about 160,000 political prisoners in camps across the nation. The North has long been criticized for frequent violations of human rights and the United Nations has adopted resolutions condemning such practices. But North Korea has denied that the prison camps exist.

By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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로버트박, 두만강 건너 무단 입북

한국계 미국인 로버트 박(28·한국명 박동훈)씨가 25일 중국을 통해 무단 입북했다고 서울의 북한 인권단체 관계자들이 27일 밝혔다. 대북 인권활동을 벌여온 박씨는 25일 오후 5시 중국 싼허(三合)를 통해 맞은편 북한 땅인 함북 회령시로 들어간 것으로 밝혀졌다. 박씨는 얼어붙은 두만강을 걸어서 넘어가며 한국말로 “나는 미국 시민이다. 하나님의 말씀을 가져왔다”고 외쳤다고 단체 관계자는 전했다. 27일 오후까지 북한 관영 매체는 아무런 반응을 보이지 않았다.

박씨는 김정일 국방위원장에게 전달할 영문 편지를 가져갔다. 박씨는 편지에서 “죽어가는 북한 인민들을 살릴 식량·의약품·생필품 등을 가지고 들어갈 수 있도록 국경의 문을 열어 달라”며 “모든 정치범 수용소를 폐쇄시키고 정치범들을 석방해 주기 바란다”고 호소했다. 박씨는 북한에 억류되더라도 미국 정부가 구해주기를 원치 않는다는 입장도 밝힌 것으로 파악됐다.

박씨와 연대 활동을 펼쳐온 민간 인권단체 팍스코리아나의 조성래 대표는 이 편지와 함께 박씨 부모가 보내온 글을 공개했다. 박씨의 부모는 “아들이 핍박받는 사람들과 가난한 사람들을 위해 순수한 편지 하나를 들고 북한에 들어갔다고 믿는다”고 밝혔다. 조 대표는 “두 명의 단체 관계자가 중국 쪽에서 로버트 박의 입북 상황을 지켜봤다”며 “강 건너편에 북한 경비병들이 있었던 것으로 보여 체포됐을 가능성이 크다”고 말했다. 또 “당시 촬영한 사진과 동영상을 공개할 예정”이라고 덧붙였다.

정부 당국자는 “미국 국적인 박씨 문제는 기본적으로 북·미 간 영사문제”라고 말했다. 미 국무부도 “정부는 미 국민의 보호와 안녕을 최우선에 두고 있다”는 원론적 입장만 밝혔다. 그렇지만 스티븐 보즈워스 미 대북정책 특별대표의 평양 방문 이후 북·미 사이에 추가 대화가 모색되는 와중에 불거진 돌출 변수에 촉각을 곤두세우는 모습이다.

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