(Photo: AP/Andy Wong)
North Korea made good on its word and freed American Christian activist Robert Park, who arrived in Beijing Saturday.
A spokesperson for the United States Embassy said Park would fly to the United States later that day.
Park, 28, had been held by North Korea since late December after he crossed the frozen Tumen River on Christmas Day and entered without permission. The Christian activist from Tucson, Ariz., said he wanted to draw international attention to the human rights abuse in North Korea.
A copy of a letter written by Park, posted on the Seoul-based activist group Pax Koreana’s Web site, called on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to repent and to open up the country to humanitarian aid and shut down concentration camps.
According to Pax Koreana leaders, who witnessed Park’s entry into North Korea, the Christian activist carried the letter and a Bible into the reclusive country.
North Korea’s state-run media, Korean Central News Agency, announced Friday that the government “decided to leniently forgive and release” Park after he expressed “sincere repentance” for his wrongdoing.
In an interview with KCNA, which could not be independently verified, Park said he went into North Korea to call attention to rights abuse and mass killings with the mindset of being willing to die for the cause. But he was surprised to have been well-treated while detained and reportedly said he was fed “false propaganda made by the West to tarnish” North Korea’s image.
Park also said he was surprised to have been allowed to practice Christianity freely when he attended a Pyongyang church and when his Bible was returned to him.
“This fact alone (returning of Bible) convinced me that the religious freedom is fully ensured” in North Korea, KCNA reported Park as saying.
But many doubt whether the North Korean report is true.
Jo Sung-rae of Pax Koreana said the detained American told him he does not want to wear the color black because it is a color “God does not like,” according to The Associated Press.
“But Park appeared in the KCNA interview with a black tie,” Jo said, referring to the released KCNA photo. “We believe this is his message to the world that he is being forced to act against his will.”
The Rev. Madison Shockley, the Park family’s pastor in California, responded to news of Robert’s release by saying, “We cannot wait for him to land on American soil and to hear the truth of what he discovered there,” according to AP.
There are about 160,000 political prisoners in prison camps across North Korea, according to South Korean and American government estimates based on testimonies from former prisoners. Among the political prisoners are an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Christians, according to Open Doors USA.
The totalitarian regime bans Christianity and has publicly executes citizens found to possess a Bible. Many North Koreans who were able to escape have testified about the regime’s harsh persecution of Christians.
For eight straight years, the ministry Open Doors has ranked North Korea as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians.
Though Park was released, North Korea is still holding another American who illegally entered the country on Jan. 25. The person’s motive and identity have not been released.