A "repentant" American missionary set to be freed from North Korea after being arrested at the border on Christmas said he was ashamed of the "biased" view he once held of the communist nation, Pyongyang's state media said Friday. There was no way to verify if the missionary was speaking freely or under duress from his captors.
Breaking its silence about Robert Park's fate, North Korea announced Friday that the American would be released from custody after admitting to entering the country illegally and showing "sincere repentance" for the transgression.
Park, 28, slipped across the frozen Tumen River from China into North Korea carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to close the country's notoriously brutal prison camps and to step down from power — acts that could risk a death sentence in the totalitarian nation.
However, the government "decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrong doings into consideration," the official Korean Central News Agency said. Details of his release were not immediately available.
Park of Tucson, Arizona, appeared healthy if a bit gaunt in photos released by KCNA during what it called an interview with the American. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he smiled and gesticulated in the photos, a microphone and bottles of water on the table before him.
Back home, his family exulted at the prospect of Park's release.
There was no information about when Park would be released but his family in California said they were thrilled by the prospect.
"We are very excited but I don't know if it's real or not. We have to wait and see if it's really happening," his father, Pyong Park, told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Carlsbad, California, north of San Diego.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they had been informed of Park's impending release.
"North Korean authorities informed us recently of their intention to do so and we are pleased they are proceeding," National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang said.
The United States, which fought against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and relies on the Swedish Embassy to serve as its representative.
Swedish Ambassador Mats Foyer said he had not been authorized to issue a statement and referred queries to the State Department.
The 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.
Late last month, KCNA reported the arrest of another American suspected of illegal entry. He has not been identified.
News of Park's pending 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.
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.
On Friday, KCNA released a transcript and photos from an interview with Park. In one photo, the American appears healthy and well-dressed in a dark suit and tie as he leans forward over a microphone while gesturing. He is shown smiling in another.
Park blamed his transgression on a "wrong understanding" of North Korea "caused by the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image," KCNA said.
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 every day as I wished."
Religious observances restricted
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but 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 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.
The Rev. John Benson, the pastor who ordained Park as a missionary in 2007, said the entire congregation at Life in Christ Community Church in Tucson was overjoyed.
"We are ecstatic over this news. Very, very excited and happy. Overjoyed," he told AP. "We've been praying for him to be freed. It's definitely an answer to our prayers."
He said they feared the worst but consider him a hero for risking his life by going to North Korea.
"That makes it all the more heroic — that he was willing to lay down his life," he said. "We didn't want it to end with it being a tragedy for Robert and his family. We wanted it to end as a win-win, with an outcry around the world. At the same time, we wanted Robert back."