SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea announced Friday that it will free an American missionary detained on Christmas Day for illegally crossing the border from China.
Robert Park, of Tucson, Arizona, slipped across the frozen Tumen River from China into the North carrying letters calling on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to close the country's notoriously brutal prison camps and to step down from power, rights activists in Seoul said.
North Korean media reported in a brief dispatch Dec. 29 that authorities had detained an American suspected of illegal entry, but said nothing more about it until Friday, leaving his fate in question for weeks.
The 28-year-old missionary's detainment came nearly four months after two other Americans, journalists Euna Park and Laura Ling, were released with former President Bill Clinton's help after they were arrested at the border and sentenced to prison.
State media in Pyongyang said Friday that North Korea "decided to leniently forgive and release" Park after "taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration."
In Washington, the State Department said it had no immediate comment. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, its adversary during the 1950-53 Korean War. No further details about Park's release were available Friday.
"We are ecstatic over this news. Very, very excited and happy. Overjoyed," the Rev. John Benson, pastor at the Life in Christ Community Church in Tucson who ordained Park as a missionary in late 2007, told The Associated Press. "We've been praying for him to be freed. It's definitely an answer to our prayers."
News of Park's release comes amid a push by Pyongyang to reach out to Washington and Seoul after more than a year of tensions. North Korea has been pressing the U.S. for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, saying the U.S. military presence in South Korea is the main reason behind its drive to build up its nuclear weapons program.
Friends and colleagues said Park, a Korean American, was a devout Christian who felt compelled to go into North Korea to draw attention to the political situation.
On Friday, the official Korean Central News Agency said Park stated that he trespassed into North Korea because of his "wrong understanding" of the country "caused by the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image."
Park also said he was convinced "there's complete religious freedom for all people everywhere" in North Korea, citing the return of his Bible and a service he attended at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang, KCNA said.
"Being a devout Christian, I thought such things as praying are unimaginable in the (North) due to the suppression of religion," the report quoted Park as saying. "Everybody neither regarded praying as something unusual nor disturbed it. I was provided with conditions for praying everyday as I wished."
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in reality the government severely restricts religious observance, allowing only worship at sanctioned churches.
Underground worship and distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or even execution, according to defectors and activists.
Park also told KCNA that he was treated well by North Korean soldiers, helping him change his mind about North Korea.
"What I have seen and heard in the (North) convinced me that I misunderstood it. So I seriously repented of the wrong I committed, taken in by the West's false propaganda," KCNA quoted Park as saying.
"I would not have committed such crime if I had known that the (North) respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life," it quoted him as saying. (AP)