BEIJING – Looking pale and drawn, an American missionary headed home Saturday after North Korea released him from six weeks' detention for crossing its border on Christmas Day to protest religious suppression in the totalitarian regime.
Robert Park, his eyes almost closed, made no comment as U.S. consular officials guided him to a transit area in Beijing's airport after his morning arrival from North Korea. He was to leave later in the day for the United States.
Park, 28, crossed the frozen Tumen River from China into North Korea carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to close the country's notoriously brutal prison camps and step down from power — acts that could have risked execution in the hard-line communist country.
North Korea's government announced Friday it would release Park, with official media quoting him as saying he now believed "there's complete religious freedom for all people everywhere" in the North.
"I would not have committed such crime if I had known that the (North) respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life," the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Park as saying.
North Korea is regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records, with some 154,000 political prisoners held in six camps across the country, according to the South Korean government.
The government severely restricts religious observance, only allowing worship — primarily by foreigners — at sanctioned churches. Defectors say underground worship and the distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
North Korea had previously disclosed nothing about Park during his 43 days in custody .
The report by KCNA, North Korea's governmental mouthpiece, quoted Park, of Tucson, Arizona, as saying he was ashamed of the "biased" view he once held of the communist nation. It said he changed his mind after his Bible was returned to him and he attended a service at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang.
Park did not respond to questions from reporters Saturday asking whether he had been speaking freely or under duress to KCNA.
He was to head to the United States later Saturday, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said.
The State Department said Saturday that it welcomed Park's freedom. It said Park had asked the U.S. government not to provide specifics regarding his release and referred questions to his family.
It was the second time in less than a year that an American has been held by North Korea, which doesn't have diplomatic ties with the U.S. Two journalists were released in August with former President Bill Clinton's help after they were arrested at the border and sentenced to prison.
Last month, North Korea notified the U.S. that it has yet another American in custody for allegedly entering the country illegally. That person has not been identified by either Pyongyang or the U.S. State Department, and a State Department spokesman said Friday they still don't have information.
Friends and family back in the U.S. were waiting anxiously for Park's return.
"We are just elated that he's been released safely," the Rev. Madison Shockley, a Park family pastor in Carlsbad, California, said by phone. "We cannot wait for him to land on American soil and to hear the truth of what he discovered there."
Shockley said Park's Korean-American parents were told of the release by the State Department on Friday and were very happy but almost in shock.
"The mother will only truly believe it when he is in her arms," Shockley said.
Messages left for Park's parents and brother were not immediately returned late Friday local time.
"We finally can relax," said the Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, Arizona, who ordained Park as a missionary. "We still had a little bit of reservation while he was still in North Korea. There was always a chance that they could change their mind."
Benson said he was skeptical of Park's statements Thursday, which he said sounded like "propaganda," and said Park may be able to speak freely once he's back in the U.S.
"It totally did not sound like Robert at all," Benson said.
Park's uncle in Los Angeles, Manchul Cho, said he was thrilled by the rapid developments after weeks of silence from Pyongyang.
"The progress has been so fast," Cho said. "North Korea never talked about him. It was total darkness."