Urging human rights, American missionary crosses into North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — An American Christian missionary slipped into isolated North Korea on Christmas Day, shouting that he brought God's love and carrying a letter urging leader Kim Jong Il to step down and free all political prisoners, an activist said Saturday.

Robert Park, 28, crossed a poorly guarded stretch of the frozen Tumen River that separates North Korea from China, according to a member of the Seoul-based group Pax Koreana, which promotes human rights in the North. Two activists apparently watched and taped the entry.

"I am an American citizen. I brought God's love. God loves you and God bless you," Park reportedly said in fluent Korean as he crossed over Friday near the northeastern city of Hoeryong, according to the activist, citing the two who witnessed the scene. Pax Koreana planned to release the footage today in Seoul, he said. He spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

No information has emerged about what happened next to Park, who is of Korean descent. The communist country's state-run media were silent. The State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said they were aware of the incident but had no details.

The illegal entry could complicate Washington's efforts to coax North Korea back to negotiations aimed at its nuclear disarmament. Park's crossing also comes just months after the country freed two U.S. journalists who were arrested along the Tumen and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and "hostile acts." They were released to former President Bill Clinton on a visit in August. North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations.

Park, from Tucson, Ariz., carried a letter to Kim calling for major changes to his totalitarian regime, according to the activist from Pax Koreana.

"Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive," it said, according to a copy on the group's Web site. "Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today."

North Korea holds about 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps, according to South Korean government estimates. The North has long been regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records, but it denies the existence of prison camps.

The activist said that Park, whom he described as not belonging to Pax Koreana, also carried a separate written appeal calling for Kim to immediately step down, noting starvation, torture and deaths in North Korean political prison camps.

North Korea punishes illegal entry with up to three years in prison. But that could be the least of the missionary's problems in a country where defectors say dissent is swiftly wiped out and the regime sees trespassers as potential spies.

Park came to South Korea in July and stayed there until leaving for China last week to enter the North, said the activist. He said Pax Koreana is affiliated with an organization called Freedom and Life for All North Koreans, to which Park belongs.

Other activists said Park had become known in Seoul human rights circles. They suggested his passion may have blinded him to the consequences of his actions.

Urging human rights, American missionary crosses into North Korea 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 9:08pm]

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