A number of South Korean church leaders have criticized a U.S. activist's illegal entry into North Korea, saying that his action will cause more harm than good for the North Korean Christians and citizens he meant to help.
"The Gospel shouldn't be presented aggressively…It doesn't help to increase religious freedom," said the Rev. Kim Tae-hyon, director of the church and ecumenical relationship department of the National Council of Churches in Korea, to the Union of Catholic Asian News.
Kim and other Korean church leaders raised concern about how North Korea would interpret actions of Robert Park, who reportedly crossed over into the isolated nation on Christmas Day. They said the North could think the Christian activist was politically motivated or being intentionally disrespectful to the government.
Father Raphael Seo Jong-yeob, executive secretary of the Korean Bishops' Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People, went further and predicted that Park's action will "aggravate the North's hostility toward the South and the rest of the world" and hinder the reunification process of the peninsula.
According to fellow activists who witnessed the crossing, Park, a 28-year-old U.S. citizen from Tucson, Ariz., crossed the 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.
While crossing the Tumen River, Park reportedly shouted, "I am an American citizen. I am coming here to deliver God's love. God loves you." He also carried a letter addressed to North Korean 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.
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.
"Nobody knows what results his unexpected act may produce," said the Rev. Lee Soo-bong, general secretary of the Christian Mission for North Korea.
"His act could be another chance to evangelize North Korea if we see it positively," the Presbyterian pastor said in defense of Park.
Similarly, Mi Young Kim, research department head at Korean War Abductees Research Institute, defended Park and his motivation for entering North Korea.
Kim said she witnessed his "passionate" prayer at a North Korea prayer event several years ago in South Korea. In a commentary posted on Christian Today Korea, she wrote how she believes everyone that attended the event "could testify with what heart he had as he crossed the [Tumen] river" when they recall the tears he had shed for the North Korean people during the event.
"I am on the side of this strange youngster," Kim wrote, "for I can understand that what he took to North Korea is the heart of God."
"Even if everyone in the world criticized him, I know that he has the Word of heaven, where there are only light and love," she said.
On Tuesday, North Korea announced that it has arrested and was interrogating an American who illegally entered the country on Christmas Eve. Though the state-run media failed to identify the American, most people assume the North is confirming that it has detained Park.
Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang are working on behalf of the United States to confirm Park's situation.
"The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) government has confirmed it is holding a U.S. citizen pending an investigation," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement.
"We will continue to work through the Swedish embassy, our protecting power in Pyongyang, to seek consular access to this American citizen," Kelly said.
The United States has no diplomatic relation with North Korea.