BEIJING — A 13-year-old American plans to visit North Korea this week and perhaps meet leader Kim Jong Il to pitch his idea for a "children's peace forest" in the demilitarized zone.
Jonathan Lee, who was born in South Korea and lives in the U.S. state of Mississippi, is scheduled to fly to Pyongyang on Thursday from Beijing with his parents, the family told The Associated Press. They said North Korean officials in Beijing gave them visas Wednesday night.
Jonathan said he expects to meet with North Korean officials and will propose the children's peace forest, "one in which fruit and chestnut trees would be planted and where children can play."
The DMZ that has separated North and South Korea for more than a half-century is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the world. Combat-ready troops stand guard on both sides, and the land is strewn with land mines and laced with barbed wire.
"We know, it sounds crazy," said Lee's mother, Melissa. "When he first said, 'I think we need to go to North Korea,' I looked at my husband and said, 'What?' It was a radical idea."
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the North and it and the international community have imposed strict economic sanctions over the regime's nuclear weapons program. In less than a year, North Korea detained four Americans for illegal entry, and one is still in prison there.
The U.S. State Department cautions on its website that foreigners visiting North Korea may be arrested or expelled for engaging in unsanctioned religious or political activity and for unauthorized travel or interaction with locals.
The family's expected visit comes during high tensions on the Korean peninsula. The sinking of a South Korean warship in March was blamed on the North, and military drills were held recently between South Korea and the United States in response. The North repeatedly has denied attacking the South's warship.
The Lee family said Wednesday they applied this summer to go to North Korea as a "special delegation" and that North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations in New York gave permission for their visit.
It was impossible to get comment from North Korea, which normally makes statements through its state-run news agency.
"It's supposed to be safe, but I'm a little nervous. It's a communist country," Jonathan said. "I've watched lots of documentaries. It's supposed to be really clean and stuff."
His mother said the family told the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. An embassy spokesman, Aaron Tarver, said in an e-mail he was checking with embassy officers about it.
Reports by South Korea's Yonhap news agency say Jonathan met former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung three years ago and suggested planting chestnut trees on the Korean peninsula and that he went to see the then-ailing former president again last year.
In a letter Jonathan hopes to give to Kim Jong Il, he wrote that Kim Dae-jung talked with him about his "sunshine policy" of peaceful coexistence with the North.
"He promised he would take me with him the next time he went to the DPRK, but sadly he passed away last year," the letter says. "I'd like to carry on his dream."
The idea for the visit to the North startled Jonathan's father, Kyoung Lee, who was born and raised in South Korea and now lives with his family in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
"When growing up, I was always taught, don't talk to or associate with any North Korean people, so this is kind of shocking for me that my son wants to go in," Kyoung Lee said. (AP)