Image: Robert Park
Andy Wong  /  AP
American missionary Robert Park is seen inside a vehicle after arriving at the Beijing Capital Airport on Saturday. He later flew back to the United States.
updated 2/6/2010 11:35:30 PM ET 2010-02-07T04:35:30

An American missionary who strode illegally into North Korea on Christmas Day and was detained by the communist regime for 43 days was welcomed back to the United States Saturday evening in an emotional reunion with family members at Los Angeles International Airport.

Robert Park was greeted by his parents and brother in a private location at the airport after arriving on a commercial flight from Beijing. Earlier Saturday, the 28-year-old Korean-American from Tucson, Ariz., flew to the Chinese capital from Pyongyang.

The family stopped briefly for reporters as they left the airport in their car. A thin and pale Park said nothing and kept his eyes downcast while his brother, Paul Park, told reporters that he's in good condition.

"Hugging him, there didn't seem to be anything broken," he said.

Robert Park crossed the frozen Tumen River from China into North Korea on Dec. 25, carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to close the country's notoriously brutal prison camps and step down from power — acts that could have risked execution in the hard-line communist country.

North Korea announced Friday that Park would be freed.

The family planned to feed Robert Park spaghetti for dinner — his favorite meal growing up. Paul Park added that his brother seemed to be in good health, although he appeared to have lost a little weight.

The family didn't have time during their brief airport reunion to ask Robert Park whether he had been mistreated by North Korean officials, Paul Park said. They also didn't get a chance to ask him about a statement that North Korea attributed to him on Friday, he said.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency quoted Park as saying he was ashamed of the "biased" view he once held of the country.

Park said he was now convinced "there's complete religious freedom for all people everywhere" in North Korea, citing the return of the Bible he carried as he entered the country and a service he attended at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang, KCNA said.

"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.

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Park didn't respond to questions from reporters when he arrived in Beijing about whether he had been speaking freely or under duress.

North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government severely restricts religious observance, only allowing worship — primarily by foreigners — at sanctioned churches. Defectors say underground worship and the distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.

KCNA said Park told the news agency he had felt compelled to go to North Korea to draw attention to reported rights abuses and mass killings, even if it meant risking his life.

North Korea is regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records, with some 154,000 political prisoners held in six camps across the country, according to the South Korean government.

Paul Park said he was left completely speechless when he first spotted his brother walking off the plane. He said Robert Park cried during the encounter.

"Right now, the biggest thing is, we love him and we're excited to have him back," Paul Park said. "And I'm really excited because I got to make probably the biggest of my New Year's resolutions, which was to get him back home and give him a hug."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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