North Korea to free 'repentant' US missionary Robert Park

Pyongyang, North Korea - An American missionary who walked into North Korea proclaiming Christian salvation and demanding the resignation of the country's dictator, Kim Jong Il, will be released after "repenting" of his crime, according to the country's official media.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported this morning that Robert Park, a 28-year-old US citizen of Korean descent, will soon be released six weeks after his Christmas Day crossing into North Korea from China.

Before his departure Mr Park had spoken of his wish to free the occupants of North Korea's gulags and his willingness to die in the attempt.

However, according to KCNA, a faithful mouthpiece of the North Korean regime, he has changed his view of one of the world's most isolated and repressive countries.

"According to the results of the investigation, he trespassed on the border due to his wrong understanding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," the news agency reported.

"The relevant organ of the DPRK decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking into consideration his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings."

"I trespassed on the border due to my wrong understanding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea caused by the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image," Mr Park was quoted as saying.

"I would not have committed such a crime if I had known that the DPRK respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life."

He said that his Bible had been returned to him and that he had attended a service at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang.

He added: "There's complete religious freedom for all people everywhere ... Being a devout Christian, I thought such things as praying are unimaginable in the DPRK due to the suppression of religion. Everybody neither regarded praying as something unusual nor disturbed. I was provided with conditions for praying every day as I wished.

"What I have seen and heard in the DPRK convinced me that I misunderstood it. So I seriously repented of the wrong I committed, taken in by the West's false propaganda."

The strength and sincerity of Mr Park's new faith and the freedom with which he declared it will be questioned when he finally is released. Foreign governments and human rights organisations have repeatedly accused North Korea of suppressing freedom of religion in a country where the only tolerated faith is the personality cult of Kim Jong Il and his late father, the founding "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.

Pongsu Church is regarded by many observers as a bogus institution, maintained as a front for visiting foreigners.

"When he comes out and is interviewed again what he truly thinks will come out from the bottom of his heart," said Jo Sung Rae, a South Korean Christian rights activist. "But we do not trust the interview done by North Korea for now."

The release of Mr Park will bring to an end an awkward situation both for North Korea and the US Government. By releasing him without trial, Pyongyang is attempting to undermine Mr Park's claims that it is a vicious dictatorship. But it risks encouraging similar gestures by other Christians and activists who are dedicated to opposing the North Korean regime.

Washington will be relieved to have avoided a repeat of the situation last year when two female American journalists were arrested while filming a television documentary close to the Chinese border. They were tried and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour before being released after five months after a personal visit by the former US President Bill Clinton.

Last month North Korea reported the arrest of another US citizen for trespassing in its territory. No name or details have been released.