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US missionary enters North Korea at border

SENDING A MESSAGE Robert Park (left) carried a letter to Kim Jong Il calling for major changes in how North Korea is operated. SENDING A MESSAGE
Robert Park (left) carried a letter to Kim Jong Il calling for major changes in how North Korea is operated.
By Kwang-Tae Kim
Associated Press / December 27, 2009

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SEOUL - A Christian missionary from Arizona has entered North Korea carrying a letter to leader Kim Jong Il in order to call attention to the tens of thousands of political prisoners believed held in the communist state, an activist said yesterday.

Robert Park, a 28-year-old Korean-American, crossed the frozen Tumen River into North Korea from China on Christmas Day to urge Kim to release political prisoners and shut down the “concentration camps’’ where they are held, said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the issue’s sensitivity.

It was unclear yesterday whether Park was in North Korean custody. Illegal entry into the country is punishable by up to three years in prison. The communist regime held two American journalists for five months earlier this year before freeing them during a visit by President Clinton.

Park is a missionary from Tucson, according to the activist, who works for Pax Koreana, a conservative Seoul-based group that calls for North Korea to improve its human rights record.

“I am an American citizen. I brought God’s love. God loves you and God bless you,’’ Park was quoted by two activists as shouting in Korean as he crossed the North Korean border, according to the activist who spoke to the Associated Press.

He said Park was last seen by the two other activists, who saw him enter North Korea’s northeastern city of Hoeryong from the poorly guarded border late Friday afternoon. He added that the crossing was videotaped and the footage would be released today.

North Korea holds about 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, 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 rejects outside criticism and denies the existence of prison camps.

North Korean state media did not mention any illegal crossing. The country’s criminal code punishes illegal entry with up to three years in prison.

Park carried a letter to Kim calling for major changes in how the country is operated, according to Pax Koreana.

“Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive,’’ said the letter, according to a copy posted on Pax Koreana’s website. “Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today.’’

The activist said that Park also carried a separate written appeal calling for Kim to step down immediately, noting alleged starvation, torture, and deaths in North Korean political prison camps. The second letter was addressed to the leaders of South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and the United Nations.

North Korea is expected to react strongly because Park raised the issue of its political system, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

Demanding Kim step down is “a kind of hostile act’’ and “the North won’t likely compromise on such issue,’’ Koh said, predicting it will take time to resolve.

Kim wields absolute power in the communist state of 24 million people.

Any acts seen as hostile to him and his leadership carry harsh punishment, said Choi Eun Suk, a professor on North Korean legal affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.