- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

BEIJING (AP) — Looking pale and drawn, an American missionary was on his way home to the U.S. on Saturday after being freed by North Korea, which detained him for illegally crossing its border from China on Christmas Day.

Robert Park, his eyes almost closed, made no comment as U.S. consular officials guided him from his arrival on an Air Koryo flight to a transit area at the Beijing airport.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said Park would leave later in the day for the United States. He was expected to fly to the western U.S., where his family lives.

“We welcome North Korea’s release of Robert Park, who arrived in Beijing this morning,” Stevenson said.

On Friday, North Korea announced it would free Park, saying he had shown “sincere repentance.” Park’s release came 43 days after he was detained.

Park, 28, slipped across the frozen Tumen River 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 risk a death sentence in the totalitarian nation.

However, the North Korean government “decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The report quoted Park, of Tucson, Arizona, as saying he was ashamed of the “biased” view he once held of the communist nation.

Park did not respond Saturday to questions from reporters asking whether he had been speaking freely or under duress.

“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 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.

“We finally can relax,” said Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, Ariz., 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 statement 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.

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