SEOUL, South Korea – A Korean-American missionary believed detained in North Korea walked into the country carrying a Bible, intent on preaching Christianity in a country that bans illegal worship — a bold move that may put him at greater risk of harsh punishment.
Determined to bring international attention to human rights abuses in North Korea, Robert Park slipped into the communist country on Christmas Day, activists in Seoul said Thursday. The 28-year-old bore letters calling on authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il to step down and close down camps for political prisoners. He carried a Bible in one hand and the text of a hymn in the other, they said.
"I brought God's love. God loves you, and God bless you," he shouted in Korean as he crossed a frozen river dividing China from North Korea, the activists said, citing the guides who led Park to the border.
Park, of Tucson, Arizona, has not been heard from since, but one of the two guides — both North Korean defectors — brought back the black leather jacket, hat and gloves that Park handed over before fleeing across the border, said Jo Sung-rae of the Seoul-based group Pax Koreana.
"He asked us to give his clothes to the poor," Jo said Thursday after saying a prayer for Park at the South Korean border village of Imjingak. "I'm sure that Robert is fasting in North Korea now as he had been fasting before entering there."
North Korea announced Tuesday that an American was in custody after entering the country illegally, without identifying the person. It has said nothing more about the incident.
The detainment comes four months after two American journalists arrested at the border were freed, their 12-year sentences for illegal entry and "hostile acts" commuted after former President Bill Clinton intervened.
While Park's deliberate trip into North Korea has not garnered the same attention as the arrests of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, which occurred at a time of heightened tension between North Korea and Washington, his Christian mission may raise the ire of North Korean officials, analysts said.
North Korea's criminal code punishes illegal entry with up to three years in prison, but Park could be accused of attempting to undermine the regime with Christianity, analysts said.
"Robert attempted to spread the Gospel. He planned to spread the Gospel even to North Korean soldiers if they were to arrest him" and was secretly sending Bibles to the North as well as helping North Korean citizens defect, Jo said.
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in reality the government severely restricts religious observance, allowing only worship at sanctioned churches.
Underground worship and distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or even execution, according to defectors and activists. Still, more than 30,000 North Koreans are practicing Christianity in hiding, they say.
"North Korea could regard sending Bibles as an attempt to overthrow its regime," said Kim Soo-am, a North Korea expert at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "The North sees Bibles and Christianity as a threat to its regime."
Park may be punished to serve as an example, said Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
"Park openly went into the country to die a martyr while holding a Bible in his hand. North Korea has no choice but to impose a grave punishment on him," he said.
One analyst called Park's presence "troublesome" for North Korea, but predicted the government would eventually expel him. Park's detainment comes just weeks after President Barack Obama's special envoy to North Korea made a milestone visit to Pyongyang.
"North Korea will consider it as a minor issue and kick him out," said Jeong Kwang-min, a research fellow at the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
Fellow missionaries in Seoul said they hope Park will achieve his dream of liberating North Koreans from a dictatorship he felt compelled to fight at the risk of his own life.
"He told me it was God's will to send him to go to the North," Jo said. "He told me he would never come out of North Korea unless its political prison camps are dismantled, even if it means dying there."
Maggie Drabing, 26, a fellow missionary and English teacher from Houston, Texas, was among dozens who braved the biting cold to rally in Seoul on Wednesday in Park's support. She said she spoke to Park three days before he left for North Korea.
"He told me that 'You know, I want to get married and I want to have a family.' But he said, 'I am willing to sacrifice that for God, and what God called on me to do."'