Former North Korea prisoner can't forget

Seoul, South Korea — Robert Park prays almost all the time.

“I pray constantly for the people of North Korea,” he says, speaking quickly as he walks down a busy street in Seoul. "I pray for an end to their suffering, for an end to genocide.”

For Park, devotion provides some relief from his own ordeal.

On Christmas Day 2009, Park, a U.S. missionary from Tucson, Ariz., forged the Tumen River and crossed from China into North Korea. Two American TV women had been picked up by border guards in the same spot earlier in the year, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton had gone to negotiate their release.

But Park, almost 30 now, had made it clear he didn't want to be rescued. His intention was to highlight the suffering in North Korea, where his grandmother was from, even if it meant joining the oppressed.

“When I went in [to North Korea], I didn’t want anyone to come and get me,” he said during a recent interview at a coffee shop. “I made that very clear."

Armed with a letter urging leader Kim Jong Il to resign after freeing the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, Park was not well received. After being detained for 43 days, Park issued a statement saying he’d been "wrong” in his criticism and was released in 2010.

He is reluctant to speak in detail about his experience in prison, but he says he was tortured in Pyongyang. “I wasn’t prepared,” he said. “They terrified me. They know what they’re doing.” As for just what, “there were things that happened,” he said. “That’s why we need to know what they’re doing to everyone.”

After his release, Park spent weeks in hospitals in Texas and California before he felt able to face the world again. Friends say he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and The Washington Post reported in January that he had been sexually abused while in prison.

Throughout our interview, Park appeared nervous and gestured often, sometimes running his fingers across his face. It was a warm rainy day, and Park wore a thick woolen hat that he said would help conceal his identity.

His parents have told media that they wish Park would take some time to focus on his own mental health rather than the well-being of the 24 million living in North Korea.

But the latter is all he wants to talk about. When asked specifically about how prison affected him personally, all Park would say is that he “had a lot of suicidal feelings after leaving North Korea.”

But while mum about his own trauma, Park feels newly committed to "stop the genocide" in North Korea.

“After what I’ve been through, they thought I’d never speak out again,” he said. “That’s why they sent me away.”

He spends his time addressing church groups and anyone who will listen in South Korea and the United States. “It’s time for people to take radical action. We’re trying to get people to see this is as a genocide," he said.

Park’s experience inspires a mixed response among activists.

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who brings refugees to South Korea through his organization, Helping Hands Korea, believes Park has “a very zealous and pure heart,” but said he doesn't agree with how Park went about his activities in North Korea.

Kim Sang-hun, a retired United Nations official who runs a database center on North Korea, is more critical. “It was a big risk for nothing,” he said. “He made the situation even worse, disgracing activities for human rights in North Korea.”

Park himself believes that, in the end, his ordeal advanced the crusade in North Korea, if only for the publicity it got.

But he would not urge others to follow his example. “After what I’ve experienced, I could not recommend it to anyone else,” he said. “We should not give the regime any kind of leverage.”

Park said he knew Aijalon Gomes, the Christian school teacher from Boston who followed his same route into North Korea in January of last year, but says he didn't advise Gomes to follow in his footsteps.

Gomes was sentenced to eight years in prison but was released in August to Jimmy Carter when the former president, like Clinton, flew to Pyongyang.

Park says it's smarter to raise awareness at home and empower refugees who have recently left the North. But he isn't optimistic that his efforts are working.

"There’s never been a large demonstration. About 1,000 people demonstrated in Washington DC in 2004. In Korea only a few hundred people come to demonstrations,” he said.

Most of the North’s 24 million people have little if any idea of what’s been happening in the Middle East, he said, much less how to bring about their own rebellion.

“We need something like what happened in Egypt,” Park said. “In the last year there have been reports the prison camps have grown larger,” he says. “I want people to see this has to end."

Park derides the North’s pleas for food aid.

“If aid really goes to the people, why do all the refugees complain?” he asked. “The regime deliberately wants people to be weak. They use the food aid as a political tool. At concentration camps, people are systematically starved. None gets to the camps.”

Park accuses China of complicity in sending North Korean defectors back home when they reach China.

“There are tens of thousands of defectors in China,” he said. “We have to get China to abide by international law. When they’re sent back, they’re tortured. If they come back with a Chinese baby, they’re killed right there.”

What about the influence of Christianity on refugees? “Anyone who believes in Christ, they’ll be executed," he said.

Repeatedly, however, Park refers to his own faith as his bedrock. “As a Christian, I believe there’s a solution,” he said, highlighting the need for swift military response if the North conducts another nuclear test or stages attacks such as those in the Yellow Sea last year that killed 50 South Koreans.

South Koreans and Americans will only have themselves to blame if the suffering goes on, he says. "What has happened to these people, the crimes committed against them with the knowledge we have, it’s a crime to be complicit."