By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (BosNewsLife)– A young American missionary, who has reportedly been detained for illegally entering North Korea on Christmas Day, was inspired to go there by a biography about the “first Christian martyr” of present day North Korea, suggested an e-mail obtained by BosNewsLife Sunday, December 27.
Robert Park, 28, wrote in last week’s e-mail that he was “amazed” by the book ‘Chosen for Choson’ on the life and violent death of another 19th century missionary, Robert Jermain Thomas, written by Stella Price.
“I want to thank you and [author] Mrs. Price for the amazing biography of missionary Thomas’s life,” he wrote to the author and her husband Dr. Stephen Price.”I don’t know if I had the chance to tell you, but I was very moved by it and not only I but also my dadhas had a chance to read the brilliant book and he to was very moved,” Park wrote in the e-mail.
Born in Wales, Missionary Thomas travelled with Bibles on an American armed trading ship to Pyongyang,the present-day capital of North Korea. In 1866, the ship became stuck on a sandbank in a nearby riverand was attacked by Korean soldiers.
Thomas, 27, reportedly stood on the deck of the burning ship, opening his cases of Bibles and flungthe books to those who lined the banks of the river. Before he was beheaded, he apparently also gavea Bible to his executioner.
Several Koreans reportedly rescued Bibles and brought them home to be used as wallpaper.
After readingthe texts on the walls of their homes, many became Christians, according to the biography. Fast forward, in the 21st century that event apparently made an impact on Park and his family.”My Dad’s family is from the north, and were Christians there before fleeing because of the persecutionand war,” wrote Park.
Dr. Price, who founded medical mission group Emmaus Road Ministries (ERM), told BosNewsLife that he andhis wife received the e-mail “a few days” before Park left for North Korea. The e-mail seen by BosNewsLifesaid December 19.
Activists confirmed Sunday, December 27, that the Korean-American, from Tucson, Arizona, had been detainedafter crossing the frozen Tumen River that borders China and North Korea. Shouting “I came here to proclaim God’s love,” the missionary carried a letter Friday, December 25, asking North Korean leader Kim Jong II to release those persecutedfor their faith and open the country for aid, witnesses said.
“Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities,and assistance to those who are struggling to survive,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letterposted on a Web site of fellow activists. “Please close down all concentration camps and release all politicalprisoners today.”
North Korea holds some 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, according South Korean government estimates. However many more people, including Christians, are held in campsacross the country, said well-informed Christian rights group Open Doors believes.
North Korea has denied the existence of these camps. Analysts said Park’s illegal entry could complicate Washington’s efforts to get North Korea back to the six-partytalks on nuclear disarmament.
Park’s crossing also comes just months after the country freed two U.S. journalists,who were arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and “hostile acts.” They were released to former President Bill Clinton on a visit to the isolated country in August.
Some have criticized Park’s decision to enter into North Korea as “reckless”. “I just feel that this was a reckless andmisguided adventure,” said Tim Peters, founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian charity group supportingNorth Korean refugees, in published remarks. He said Park had a deep and admirable commitment to prayer and the North Korean cause but was a “newcomer”to such activism and “out of his depth.”
However Dr. Price strongly disagrees. “I have known Robert for several years…He is a passionate young man…prayerful…not a publicity seeker,” he told BosNewsLife.
“Robert is a friend who is passionate about his Christian faith and his lovefor the people of North Korea. His family are originally from North Korea. He is a leader in making others aware of thehardships suffered by many in North Korea.”
Dr. Price said that it appears that Park “also wishes to challenge leader Kim Jong II to return to the Christian faith of hispaternal grand-mother and allow freedom for the many Christians who are held as prisoners because of their faith.”
He said he too shares “Robert’s love for the people” of North Korea. “As a physician I have undertaken twobridge-building medical missions to Pyongyang.”
U.S. OFFICIALS AWARE
The United States State Department said it is aware of Park’s situation but declined to enter into details. Spokesman Andrew Laine reportedly added thatm “The U.S. government places the highest priority on the protection and welfareof American citizens.”
North Korea did not yet make any known statements on the issue Sunday, December 27.
However Park told reporters before he left that he was willing to be a martyr for incarcerated North Koreans andthat he did not 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. Until theconcentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out. If I have to die with them, I will.”
He said he saw entering North Korea as his Christian duty. “[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.”
Christians often suffer as North Korea’s Stalinist system is based on total devotion of the individual to anideology promoted by the late leader Kim II-sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong II, said observers who visited the country.
The ideology, known as Juche, largely resembles a religion or cult, and refugees’ accounts say those who opposeit are dealt with severely, often ending up in prison camps.