SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Tuesday it has detained an American who entered the country illegally, after activists claimed that a 28-year-old from Arizona went to the communist nation on a mission to call attention to the regime’s human rights abuses.
The American was being investigated after “illegally entering” the country through the North Korea-China border last Thursday, North Koreas’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a two-line dispatch.
The report did not identify the American, but activists believe he is 28-year-old Christian missionary Robert Park, who they say slipped across the frozen Tumen River into North Korea from China on Christmas bearing letters calling for a change in North Korea’s leadership and an end to political prison camps.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it cannot confirm that the person cited in the dispatch is Park but noted that it had no intelligence indicating that other Americans went into North Korea illegally in recent days.
North Korea is one of the most reclusive nations in the world, allowing few citizens beyond its borders and strictly regulating who is allowed in.
The detainment comes just months after North Korea freed two U.S. journalists who had been arrested in March and sentenced four months later to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and engaging in “hostile acts.” The women were released in August to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who journeyed to Pyongyang to negotiate their freedom.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Monday that the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang has offered to try to get information about Park for the U.S., which does not have diplomatic ties with North Korea.
“We are concerned by these reports and we are looking into them,” Kelly said in Washington.
Park’s uncle called North Korea’s confirmation good news. Manchul Cho said he had worried that North Korea would execute his nephew without ever acknowledging his presence.
“My fear was that they say they don’t know anything about it and may get rid of him secretly,” he told The Associated Press in California. “Once they recognize it, that’s really good.”
Park’s parents in Encinitas, California, Pyong and Helen Park, did not respond to phone messages Monday.
The Rev. John Benson, pastor at Life in Christ Community Church in Park’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona, said he was happy to hear he was alive.
“To hear it confirmed is great,” Benson said. He said he ordained Robert Park as a missionary.
Knowing the risks, Park went into North Korea last week bearing letters urging North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to shut down the country’s notoriously harsh political prison camps and to step down from power, Jo Sung-rae of the Seoul-based activist group Pax Koreana said.
“He did this to bring awareness to the situation in North Korea, alert the churches around the world to the atrocities and human rights violations — not pay lip service, and (to) do something about it,” Benson said in Tucson. “Drastic situations call for drastic measures.”
North Korean border guards apparently detained him soon after he crossed the border, Jo said. One of two guides who helped Park get to the Tumen River said he heard North Korean guards speaking just after Park crossed the border and believes the missionary was taken into custody immediately, he said.
He said Park went into North Korea on Friday — Christmas Day — not Thursday as cited in the KCNA dispatch. He speculated that North Korean officials changed the date over concerns that the arrest of a missionary on Christmas Day would invite international criticism.
North Korea holds some 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, according to South Korean government estimates. Pyongyang has long been regarded as having one of the world’s worst human rights records, but it denies the existence of prison camps.
The two Koreas remain locked in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North and South Korea are divided by a heavily fortified border manned by hundreds of thousands of troops. The United States, which fought on the South Korean side during the war, still has 28,500 troops stationed in the South.
Washington and Pyongyang have been engaged in a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions but resumed dialogue after President Barack Obama’s special envoy on North Korea visited Pyongyang earlier this month.