North Korea says it will free American missionary

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010; 12:56 AM

SEOUL -- North Korea said Friday it will free an American missionary who entered the country on Christmas Day to protest human rights abuses.

State media in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said the government decided to "leniently forgive" Robert Park, 28, of Tucson, Ariz., because of his "sincere repentance of his wrong doings." North Korea did not say when it would release Park.

Park walked from China into North Korea across the frozen Tumen River carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to step down and to close the country's gulag of labor camps for political prisoners.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they had been informed of Park's impending release. "North Korean authorities informed us recently of their intention to do so and we are pleased they are proceeding," National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang told the Associated Press.

The missionary's father, Pyong Park, reached by the AP in Carlsbad, Calif., said, "We are very excited but I don't know if it's real or not."

North Korea released two detained American journalists last summer after former president Bill Clinton flew to the country and met with Kim. In January, the government announced it had detained another American for illegal entry. The person has not been identified.

In announcing that the government would free Park, the official Korean Central News Agency released what it described as an "interview" with the "American trespasser."

Attributed to Park, it is a flowery description of religious freedom and the good life as Park supposedly experienced it during his time inside North Korea:

"Here, I'm in the lands where people respect human rights and, not just respecting human rights, they have actually loved me and showed me more than just human rights. They have shown me grace."

When Park entered North Korea in December, friends said he did so to draw international attention to widespread human rights violations in the country.

North Korea is described by U.N. and U.S. officials as having one of the world's worst human rights records. South Korea said last year that about 150,000 political prisoners are held in six labor camps across the North. Defectors who have been in the camps say that inmates are often starved, beaten and worked to death.

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