He has been ridiculed as a Bible-thumping nut who risked not only life and limb, but also US foreign policy goals by waltzing into North Korea, decrying the human rights abuses many believe to be widely perpetrated by Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Robert Park, the Korean-American missionary who this time last year was languishing in a North Korean incarceration facility, is now back in the bosom of Seoul, the place where before his fateful journey he plotted the development of a global movement to ‘free all North Koreans.’
And he’s not happy about what he’s seeing today. In a rare interview, Park has lambasted the latest swing in relations on the Korean Peninsula that has seen momentum picking up for a return to the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme.
Indeed, only last week, the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, visited Seoul in what was the latest move aimed at kick-starting the mothballed discussions involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
Park caught international attention after he marched across the frozen Tumen River that straddles the border separating the North and China on Christmas Day, 2009, demanding Kim release the hundreds of thousands of people said to be held in prison camps around the country.
Park believes the North Korean regime is engaging in the ‘genocide’ of its own people, and says he’s speaking out now with a sense of ‘righteous anger’ at the apparent lurch back toward the six-party talks, which he believes would ultimately amount to a disaster.
‘We shouldn’t reward their bad behaviour. That’s what the six-party talks will do,’ he says gazing downward. ‘We’ve been here before. The aid doesn’t go to the people. Giving money doesn’t help. It’s time for us to address the human rights situation in a meaningful way—the time has long passed, in fact.’
Parks says that the six-party talks nations should back South Korea when it stands up to Pyongyang, arguing that understandable security worries over the nuclear issue only help the regime divert attention from its human rights abuses.
‘We need to help the refugees,’ he says. ‘We need mass demonstration.’
In what appeared to be another major about-face, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recently indicated his country had been left with ‘no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme diplomatically through the six-party talks.’ But Park believes the plight of the North Korean people and not talking with the regime should be the top priority.
‘This is about accountability,’ says the 29-year-old Park. ‘If there’s just one word to describe what the North Korean regime has done, it’s genocide. Millions of people have starved to death.’
For some, Park is an idealist who comes armed with an unrealistic list of demands. Yet for a predominantly Christian-centred movement of anti-North Korea activists, he speaks with the kind of courage many see as absent among the politicians.
Park says his extraordinary decision to freely walk into the despotic state is a journey others are waiting to replicate. Of course, others already have. On January 25 last year—exactly one month after Park's journey—31-year-old American Aijalon Gomes blazed the same trail, apparently carrying a message of peace. Gomes was known to have worshipped at the same church in Seoul as Park, and activist sources in the city said last year they had ‘been in contact’ prior to Park's Christmas Day crossing.
While last year drew to a close with the two neighbours looking like they were on the brink of war following North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’ Yeonpyeong Island on November 23—a move that followed its presumed sinking in March of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed—the first couple of weeks of 2011 have been much calmer.
But Park is undeterred. ‘This regime is evil. I know it for a fact—I faced it,’ he says, fidgeting as his eyes erratically search the floor. Its been widely reported that Park was tortured by North Korean security agents while in custody, but Park made it clear before being interviewed that he wouldn’t be drawn on the details.
‘I’m still recovering from what they did to me,’ he says.
Despite his self-confessed vulnerability—he has attempted suicide since his release in February, and lives, he says, purely to see an end to the suffering of North Koreans—Park says he actually drew some comfort leading up to Christmas as Seoul appeared to bear its teeth to the North, warning Pyongyang that it would no longer tolerate provocations like the attack on Yeonpyeong. South Korea also conducted joint military exercises with US vessels in the Yellow Sea.
But Park says he was dismayed when Lee hinted that South Korea would be prepared to return to the long-suspended six-party talks—under the right conditions. Park says he sensed pressure from Washington on Seoul to ease off on some of the harsher rhetoric that had been issued late last year.
So, looking back, how does he feel about what he did in 2009? Park hints at feeling some regret for his decision to walk into North Korea, largely because of the pain it has inflicted on not only himself, but his family and friends. However, he believes the decision pierced the consciences of some of those who had failed to realize the seriousness of the situation in North Korea.
‘I wouldn’t encourage others to do what I did,’ he says. But he adds that if the government fails to act now, others will follow in his footsteps. ‘It's their last chance.’