Pyongyang to release American missionary

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Pyongyang to release American missionary


U.S. religious activist Robert Park gestures in this undated video grab released by North Korea’s KCNA news agency in Pyongyang yesterday. [REUTERS]

North Korea said yesterday it would release a Korean-American missionary who walked into the country last Christmas Day.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported that Robert Park, 28, will be freed for showing “sincere repentance” for his actions. It did not explain where or when Park would be released.

Park, from Tucson, Ariz., walked into the country across the frozen Tumen River that borders China and North Korea. According to human rights activists in Seoul who knew about Park’s trip, the missionary carried a letter addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that urged him to open the border to let in food and medicine for dying North Koreans and to shut down concentration camps.

The news agency said the North’s investigation concluded that Park trespassed on the border “due to his wrong understanding” of North Korea, but it decided to “leniently forgive” him since he acknowledged his wrongdoing.

The U.S. State Department wasn’t immediately available to comment.

The announcement of the release comes just before a visit to North Korea by envoys from the United Nations. B. Lynn Pascoe, under secretary general for political affairs, and Kim Won-soo, special advisor to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will be in North Korea from Tuesday through Friday. They are expected to meet high-level officials in Pyongyang to discuss humanitarian issues.

In a separate dispatch, KCNA carried a transcript of an interview with Park. The missionary was quoted as saying that he entered the North because of his misunderstanding of the country “caused by the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image,” and that he was prepared to be killed or at least imprisoned for his actions.

Instead, Park said he was treated well and even went to a Pyongyang church for services.

“I would not have committed such a crime if I had known that the [North] respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life,” he was quoted as saying. “I am convinced there’s complete religious freedom for all people everywhere.”

Analysts here took the interview with a grain of salt. Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the North may only have been trying to promote a more positive image of itself.

“The North Koreans used Park’s release to ostensibly show the rest of the world that the North guarantees religious freedom,” Koh said.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul, called the interview transcript Park’s “letter of apology.” With Park’s reference to North Korea’s generosity, Yang said the North wanted to prove to its critics that it does not violate human rights.

Last year, two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were held for about five months after they were caught near the China-North Korea border on a reporting mission. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton met Kim Jong-il to gain their release in August.

Their detention was highly publicized. Lee and Ling’s families and friends held candlelight vigils and other gatherings to demand their early and safe release. The North also detained an unidentified American for illegal entry from China on Jan. 25.

By Yoo Jee-ho []
Related Korean Article

입북 42일 만에 … 여기자 억류 때보다 짧아

조선중앙통신이 5일 로버트 박의 모습이 담긴 동영상을 공개했다. 정확한 촬영 일시는 밝히지 않았다. [평양 조선중앙통신=연합뉴스]

북한은 지난해 12월 25일 북·중 국경을 넘어 무단 입북한 재미교포 대북 인권운동가 로버트 박(28)씨를 풀어주겠다고 밝혔다.

관영 조선중앙통신은 5일 “불법 입국하였던 미국 공민 로버트 박을 억류하고 조사했다”며 “자기가 저지른 행위에 대해 인정하고 심심하게 뉘우친 점을 고려해 해당 기관에서 관대하게 용서하고 석방하기로 했다”고 밝혔다. 북한의 박씨 석방 결정 보도는 입북 42일 만이다. 중앙통신은 박씨가 기자회견에서 “서방의 악선전에 기만당해 저지른 죄과를 심각히 반성하게 됐다”며 “조선 정부에 진심으로 사죄한다”고 말한 것으로 주장했다.

북한의 석방 결정은 이번 입북 사건을 북·미 관계 진전의 윤활유로 삼겠다는 의도로 보인다. 지난해 12월 버락 오바마 미 대통령이 김정일 국방위원장에게 친서를 보내는 등 북·미 간에 유화적 분위기가 조성된 점을 고려했다는 얘기다. 지난해 3월 미국 여기자 2명을 140일 붙잡아두며 대미 협상카드로 썼던 때와는 상황이 다르다.
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