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The Robert Park Puzzle

Korean-Americans reluctant to discuss arrest and release of missionary who entered North Korea.

More than three months after Robert Park walked into North Korea to "proclaim Christ's love and forgiveness" to Kim Jong Il and draw attention to human rights abuses, details of the Arizona missionary's 43-day captivity remain a mystery.

In a Reuters interview prior to his Christmas Day mission, the 28-year-old Korean-American spoke of how his Christian faith motivated him to draw attention to the Communist nation, long at the top of religious persecution and human rights watchlists.

"I do not want to be released. Until the concentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out," Park told Reuters. "The Cross means that we sacrifice our lives for the redemption of others."

North Korea holds an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners for political and religious reasons, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Prior to his February release, the government-controlled Korean Central News Agency published an interview with Park, in which he stated: "What I have seen and heard in the dppk [North Korea] convinced me that I misunderstood it. So I seriously repented of the wrong I committed, taken in by the West's false propaganda."

Speculation remains on whether Park made the statement voluntarily. Since arriving in Los Angeles on February 6, he has been silent.

Attempts to reach Park at his parents' home in Encinitas, California, were unsuccessful. Park's father, Pyong, said his son would issue a statement in the weeks following his release, but no statement was made and press conferences were canceled.

In March, Tuscon's KOLD reported that Park had been receiving psychiatric care at a hospital. According to the website Free Robert Park, Park had a March 5 competency hearing in Los Angeles and a judge allowed Park to be released from the hospital.

The Korean-American evangelical community has hesitated to comment on Park.

Korean-American churches are highly active in missions but do not put special emphasis on North Korea as a target, according to Soong-Chan Rah, associate professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary.

Rah added that Park's actions did not appear to be from a Korean-American church context.

"While Park may be of Korean descent, he is ultimately an American whose motivation should not be solely attributed to the Korean-American church," Rah said in an e-mail. "It is probably true that he was chosen for this task because he is a Korean-American, however, he does not directly represent Koreans in America and their approach to missions."

Those active in missionary work in North Korea have been reluctant to speak on the record out of fear of jeopardizing their work in the country where there is no religious freedom.

One pastor noted that while Park's actions were done with "good intentions and a zeal for the Lord," the public border crossing was done out of "sheer ignorance" and could lead to more difficulties for current and future missionary efforts by reinforcing North Korea's perception of outsiders as "dangerous lunatics that should be avoided."

"If more people chose to take the route that Robert Park has chosen to take, it could severely undermine the long-term work that is currently [being done] by missionary workers inside and hinder future missionary workers," he said.

In January, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old Christian activist from Boston who taught English in South Korea and is a friend and supporter of Park, followed in his footsteps by entering North Korea illegally, according to the Associated Press. Gomes is currently facing trial in North Korea.

Several observers said North Koreans can be reached more effectively by "silent witnesses" through humanitarian work. One example: Reah International, which assists North Korea with humanitarian and educational initiatives.

"We send in food, medicine and other aid to Christian organizations that already have a presence in North Korea," said founder Jamie Kim. "The way to effect positive change in North Korea is not through isolating North Korea or resorting to name calling, but rather to engage them."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today covered Park's entry and exit from North Korea in its March issue.

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