North Korea said Tuesday that it has detained an American who illegally entered the country, leading many to speculate that the detainee is Korean-American Christian activist Robert Park, who reportedly entered the reclusive country on Christmas Day to call for the release of prisoners.
Through the state-run Korea Central News Agency, North Korea announced that it had taken into custody a man who entered the country from China on Christmas Eve. The news agency said the American is “now under investigation by a relevant organ.” No further description of the detainee was provided.
With the exception of the date of entry, the alleged border crossing matches that of 28-year-old Park, whose entry into North Korea was disseminated around the world. According to Seoul-based civic group Pax Koreana, Park had crossed the frozen Tumen River on the evening of Christmas to call on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to repent and take measures to respect human rights.
Park reportedly carried a letter addressed to Kim, which read: “He loves you and wants to save you and all of North Korea today,” according to a copy posted on the Pax Koreana web site.
“Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive,” the letter continued. “Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today, and allow care teams to enter to minister healing to those who have been tortured and traumatized.”
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.
As Park crossed the river with a Bible and the letter in hand, he reportedly shouted in Korean, “I am an American citizen. I am coming here to deliver God’s love. God loves you.”
Activists who witnessed the crossing said it was silent by the time Park reached the North Korean side and they assumed that he has been arrested. Park’s family in San Diego and the U.S. State Department also assumed that the Christian activist has been arrested, with the State Department saying that it is working to ensure Park’s safety.
In California, Park’s uncle, Manchul Cho, said North Korea’s announcement is good news. Cho said he had feared North Korea would execute his nephew without acknowledging his existence.
"My fear was that they say they don't know anything about it and may get rid of him secretly," Cho told The Associated Press. "Once they recognize it, that's really good."
On Monday, The U.S. State Department said it was concerned about Park’s safety but said it had not been able to confirm his presence in North Korea. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, meanwhile, has offered to find out more information about Park’s situation for the United States.
There is no diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea.
According to Jo of Pax Koreana, Park’s friends and family say the young Christian activist was not afraid to die in order to draw international attention on the humanitarian crisis in North Korea and was ready to be a “martyr” when he illegally entered North Korea.
Several human rights groups, meanwhile, were hesitant in participating in rallies for Park, concerned that doing so would be interpreted as an endorsement of Park’s actions, which many have viewed as eccentric.
Others, however, have joined in calling for Park’s release, calling the Christmas Day crossing a “brave act.”