North Korea set to indict US Christian accused of proselytizing

North Korea planned Thursday to indict a US passport holder on an unspecified charge after the State Department had demanded his release.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said Jun Young-su had “admitted his crime,” but gave no further details. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Mr. Jun, a member of a Christian congregation in Irvine California, had been accused of spreading religious material when arrested in November.

The case was the latest in a series in which US citizens have been held in North Korea on charges ranging from criticizing the North Korean regime to crossing the border illegally, to Christian proselytizing. Christian worship is banned in North Korea, except in two churches in Pyongyang that are viewed as showcases, opened only for display to foreign visitors as evidence of religious freedom.

Mr. Jun, described by Yonhap as a businessman in his 60s, reportedly entered North Korea legally in November, but news of his detention did not emerge until this week. A diplomat from the Swedish embassy, representing US interests in Pyongyang in the absence of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea, reportedly has seen him, but there was no word of his condition or the specific reason for his arrest.

The zeal of Christian evangelists in ministering to North Koreans, however, is a constant irritant to the North Korean regime.

“The evangelical community is incredibly active with regard to North Korea,” says Daniel Sneider, associate director for research of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific program at Stanford University. “Christian evangelists have been going to the border areas, working in China."

At the same time, “there are some people who are clearly a little unstable as well,” he observes. “They put themselves in these situations.”

The most notorious case was that of Robert Park, an evangelical Christian from Arizona, who walked across the frozen Tumen River border on Dec. 24, 2009, bearing a letter for Kim Jong-il that called on him to stop human rights abuses, free political prisoners, and resign. Mr. Park was released six weeks later after saying he had been mistaken about North Korea’s human rights record. Since then, however, he has said he was tortured sexually, and he has been under psychiatric care.

“These are unfortunate cases,” says Mr. Sneider, “but it’s not for the US government to come to the aid of these people.”

Meanwhile, the North Korea report said “the relevant organ” was preparing to indict Jun “according to the confirmation of the charges brought against him.”

Then what?

The question now is whether the indictment was timed to precede the arrival in Pyongyang later this month of Jimmy Carter, who flew there last August and returned with Aijalon Gomes, a teacher from Boston who had entered North Korea the previous January and been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Mr. Carter was the second former US president to fly to Pyongyang with the mission of picking up Americans who had been imprisoned there. Bill Clinton flew there in 2009 to rescue two TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had strayed across the Tumen River while filming a documentary. During his visit, he had a three-hour meeting over lunch with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The State Department has said North Korea should free Jun simply as a humanitarian gesture, but has not commented on Carter’s possible role, other than to say his visit to North Korea will be “private.”

North Korea, however, has used the publicity. The North has called for resuming six-party talks on its nuclear program, but the US and South Korea have demanded that North Korea take steps to abide by agreements reached in 2007 for giving up its nuclear weapons.