North Korea said Friday it will release an American missionary who has been detained since Christmas for illegally entering the country from China.
Through state-run media Korean Central News Agency, North Korea announced that Robert Park will be freed after expressing "sincere repentance" for the transgression and for his "biased" view of the communist country. The government "decided to leniently forgive and release" Park because he admitted his wrongdoing, according to KCNA.
Park, 28, is a Christian activist from Tucson, Ariz., who crossed the frozen Tumen River and entered North Korea without permission on Christmas Day. Park, who had worked with North Korean refugees in China and advocated for greater human rights in North Korea while living in South Korea, said he hoped his illegal entry would bring international attention to the human rights abuse in the reclusive country.
He carried with him into North Korea a letter addressed to leader Kim Jong-il that proclaimed God's love and forgiveness toward the dictator, and called on him to shut down the country's prison camps, release all political prisoners, and open the country up to humanitarian groups. Park also carried a Bible with him into the country.
Friends and family of the Korean-American activist say he was willing to die to raise awareness of the human rights abuse in North Korea.
In the KCNA interview, 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 the Seoul-based activist group Pax Koreana, which has close ties with Park, 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."
Moreover, Jo said he heard from sources inside North Korea that Park had been severely beaten, according to the New York Times.
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 ministry, which advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians, has ranked North Korea as the world's worst persecutor of Christians for eight straight years.
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.
Back in the United States, Park's father said the family is "very excited" to hear about Park's possible release, according to AP. But the family also wants to wait and see if it is true.
No further details of Park's release were immediately available.
Meanwhile, no news has been heard about another American that North Korea said it detained in late January for trespassing into North Korea from China.
The U.S. government has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, but in recent weeks the rivals have tried to reach out to one another. Washington wants Pyongyang to return to nuclear disarmament talks, while North Korea wants the United States to formally end the Korean War.
Many believe Pyongyang's announcement of the release of Robert Park is being used to draw Washington into bilateral talks.