By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)– Amid international pressure, North Korea released an
American missionary Saturday, February 6, and sent him to China after holding the young man for more than a month, officials confirmed.
The United States Embassy in Beijing said Robert Park arrived there early Saturday, February 6, and was expected to be flown to the U.S. later in the day.
In an earlier statement, the U.S. State Department stressed that no deal with North Korea was made for the release of the missionary.
The 28-year-old Korean-American, from Tucson, Arizona, was detained on Christmas Day, December 25, after he crossed into the North from China.
Shouting “I came here to proclaim God’s love,” the missionary carried a Bible and a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong II asking him to release political prisoners, including those persecuted for their faith, and open the country for aid, fellow activists said.
“Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities and assistance to those who are struggling to survive,” he reportedly wrote in the letter. “Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today.”
North Korea holds at least 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps, according South Korean government estimates. However many more people, including Christians, are held in camps across the country, said well-informed Christian rights group Open Doors.
North Korea has denied the existence of these camps.
Media in the isolated nation quoted Park admitting having a “wrong understanding” of the North and that he now knows the country “respects the rights of all people and guarantees their freedom.”
The report said his admission, which colleagues suggested was made under duress, led the Pyongyang government “to forgive” and release him.
Park was inspired to go there by a biography about the “first Christian martyr” of present day North Korea, according to a BosNewsLife investigation published December 27.
Park wrote in an e-mail obtained by BosNewsLife 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 dad has had a chance to read the brilliant book and he too was very moved,” Park wrote in the e-mail.
Born in Wales, Missionary Thomas traveled 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 river and was attacked by Korean soldiers.
Thomas, 27, reportedly stood on the deck of the burning ship, opening his cases of Bibles and flung the books to those who lined the banks of the river. Before he was beheaded, the young missionary apparently also gave a Bible to his executioner.
Several Koreans reportedly rescued Bibles from the water and brought them home to be used as wallpaper. After reading the 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 persecution and war,” wrote Park.
Dr. Price, who founded medical mission group Emmaus Road Ministries (ERM), told BosNewsLife that he and his wife received the e-mail “a few days” before Park left for North Korea.
Some, including Christian aid workers, have criticized Park’s decision to enter into North Korea as “reckless”. “I just feel that this was a reckless and misguided adventure,” said Tim Peters, founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian charity group supporting North Korean refugees, in published remarks.
However Dr. Price disagrees. “I have known Robert for several years…He is a passionate young man…prayerful…not a publicity seeker,” he told BosNewsLife.
There were concerns among other critics that the missionary’s detention could complicate international talks on nuclear disarmament with North Korea. However the South Korean news agency reported Saturday, February 6, that a senior Chinese Communist Party official is to travel to Pyongyang in the next few days in an apparent attempt to get North Korea to return to the negotiations.
North Korea abandoned talks last year that involve the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on it for firing a long range rocket. (With reporting from Beijing).