View Full Version : Robert Park crosses into North Korea

January 3rd, 2010, 01:00 AM
On Christmas day, a Korean-American missionary, Robert Park, who has been active in aiding North Korean refugees resettle in South Korea and other countries, crossed the Chinese-Korean border (http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2009/12/30/interview-with-north-korea-border-crosser-robert-park/) at its northeast extreme by walking across the frozen Tumen River. He carried with him a Bible and a letter of protest detailing his reasons for taking this extreme measure. By all accounts he was arrested as soon as he reached the North Korean side of the river.

I have been following the atrocious human rights catastrophe in NK since the mid-1990s. The actions of most human rights groups, such as Amnesty International (AI), have little impact on the human rights policies of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). For one thing, AI's major sunshine tool -- "Urgent Action" letter-writing campaigns on behalf of specific political prisoners -- is ineffective in DPRK cases. Any political prisoner identified by name (assuming verifiable information could be obtained in the first place) would be marked for harsher punishment, and possibly for summary execution.

For another, the entire country is a humanitarian nightmare -- famines have carried away at least one million people (in all cases I am quoting the modest end of estimates) since the mid-90s. An entire generation of North Koreans is now irrevocably stunted in mind and body. In essence, the situation facing the populace (with the exception of elite cadre) is one massive human rights issue. Koreans in the DPRK are a foot shorter on average than in South Korea.

There also exists a gulag of concentration camps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_North_Korea#The_prison_system) in which three generations of political prisoners -- i.e. the political prisoners and their family members including children, parents, and siblings -- are held in appalling conditions. A comparison to the conditions (though not the scale -- the Nazi's set that bar very very high) of WWII camps in Germany, Poland and elsewhere is not hyperbole. At least 200,000 people are believed to be held in these camps. The figure could be as high as 250,000 or more.

For an eye-witness account by Shin Dong-hyuk, an escapee (the only one I know of) who was born in one of these camps, watch the one-hour Google Talk, "Born and Raised in a Concentration Camp (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms4NIB6xroc)."

In the past fifteen years perhaps 300,000 North Korean refugees have fled into China, most to escape famine, but also to escape torture, or political or religious persecution. A trickle -- the most recent figure I have seen is approximately 13,000 -- have managed to get to South Korea. Six (6) have been allowed to resettle in the United States. Many are captured in China and repatriated to the DPRK (in violation of the 1951 International Declaration of Human Rights, to which China is a signatory) where they are tortured, imprisoned and occasionally executed.

I believe the humanitarian crisis in North Korea to be the worst human rights disaster of our generation. Yes, Darfur is horrific. The Palestinian diaspora and occupation is and has been horrific, and it appears that it will continue to be so for some time to come. I am not denying the plight of the people trapped in these or similar environments, but at least journalists, aid agencies, and the UN etc, have some access to these populations. There is a feeling, in these cases, that an end to the suffering might come one day. Not so, North Korea.

The exasperating thing about the NK situation is that it gets so totally lost in the Realpolitik of "Six-Party Talks" and the nuclear arms issue, along with related military and strategic concerns. While the twenty-four news channels fixate on Kim Jung-Il's latest missile launches, the suffering of 24 million people is almost wholly ignored.

Many people are calling Robert Park "crazy," "self-serving," "deluded" etc., etc. I don't know if by bearing witness to this crisis he will effect change, be ignored, or (it is possible) worsen the situation, at least in the short term, as he almost certainly has for the activists working with Korean refugees and for political prisoners in the DPRK today. But I understand his desperation. He has explicitly stated he does not wish to be ransomed by State Department officials, or be rescued by the likes of Bill Clinton.

Recent news updates:




January 4th, 2010, 01:11 AM
Robert Park does not wish to be ransomed, but apparently the video of his crossing of the Tumen River is now being held hostage by an opportunistic entrepreneur. I had read about this on a blog, but this is the first news account I have seen.

Here's an update from the East Oregonian (3 January 2010), along with an excerpt:




The mood was somber on Christmas Day for Wilke and his family. His mother Marianne, who grew up on the 2,000-acre Blanchet ranch in Coombs Canyon, had met Park when she traveled to Korea to see her son and daughter-in-law.

"He was an amazing and intense person," she said. "He's the real thing."

They later heard Park had removed his coat before the crossing in solidarity with starving North Korean refugees he knew who had escaped the country wearing inadequate clothing.

With Park that night was a videographer who filmed the walk for later release to the media. Later, Wilke said, another person co-opted the video and is asking for $80,000.

"Robert would be terribly disappointed if he knew they were asking money for the video," Wilke said.

January 4th, 2010, 11:30 AM
On the one hand we find an individual, Robert Park, who touches the heart with his selfless act.

And then, right in line, is the guy hawking the vid -- who reminds us that humans are often incredibly self-serving.

Hoping his thought is to use the money towards a good end.

January 4th, 2010, 12:23 PM
On the one hand we find an individual, Robert Park, who touches the heart with his selfless act.

Why is this selfless? He's going to put an emotional burden on everyone he knows, and his country of origin, with no result.

North Korea is a living example of the failure of peaceful campaigns against a truly unredeemable evil.

January 4th, 2010, 12:30 PM
Such a burden could be said to be the result of any individual act outside the norm which challenges those in power.

January 4th, 2010, 12:37 PM
I disagree. Ghandi campaigned against a regime that was capable of shame and change. As did American Civil Rights leaders.

This is equivalent of a Jew walking from Switzerland to Germany in 1945 to protest Nazi policies. Pointless, pointless and pointless.

Everyone knows there is a problem. Everyone knows that the way they act is reprehensible. But no one wants the regime to collapse in a way that leaves the surrounding enemy countries (Japan, South Korea) nuked, gassed, anthraxed, or otherwise permanently crippled.

So nothing will be done. And so it goes...

January 4th, 2010, 01:04 PM
Good intentions, but Mr Park has become another pawn (and complication) in the larger problem of negotiating a true end to the Korean War.

JANUARY 4, 2010

North Korea Airs Interest In Peace Talks


North Korea underlined its desire for a peace treaty with the U.S. and South Korea before giving up nuclear weapons in a New Year's message that is awaited by analysts annually because it is one of the rare statements of direction from its authoritarian government.

The statement broke little new ground in the long-running dispute between the North and countries, led by the U.S., that have tried to persuade it to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In an editorial run in several state-run newspapers and broadcasts, the government said it wanted to "establish a lasting peace system on the Korean peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations."

The sequence is considered important because the U.S. wants North Korea to stop building nuclear weapons before it will agree to a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War.

North Korea's annual message often sends a signal about economic priorities and has less often been used to discuss the nuclear-weapons dispute. Last month, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, traveled to Pyongyang to gauge its willingness to return to aid-for-disarmament talks with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. North Korean diplomats acknowledged the need for talks but gave no commitment to the so-called six-party process.

Copyright WSJ

January 4th, 2010, 11:19 PM
^ That is the commonest complaint against him, but I am not convinced that he will be a "pawn." He doesn't want to be rescued and if the DPRK raises the issue -- just what Park and human rights activists would want -- they would have to field questions about the prison camps and broader human rights issues. I think it most likely that they will pump him for intelligence on the activities of activists working on the NK border with China, and in South Korea, and then expel him. But we can only speculate until more news emerges.

January 5th, 2010, 12:22 AM
Dr. Norbert Vollertsen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norbert_Vollertsen) is a German MD who worked as a medical volunteer in North Korea for 18 months, 1999-2000, before being labeled an "anarchist" for protesting human rights abuses in a letter to DPRK officials. His protest led to his expulsion to China, but he left immediately for Seoul where he continued to work as a human rights activist. He has interviewed and treated hundreds of North Koreans both within the DPRK and as refugees.

For his medical services in the North -- which included donating skin grafts to a burn victim (no scalpels used -- just a colleague with a razor blade) -- and prior (of course) to his his 2000 deportation he was awarded the "Democratic People of Korea's Friendship Medal." This allowed him access to a private car, minus an official handler, and enabled him to tour the country as he pleased. At checkpoints he simply presented his DPRK drivers license, flashed his official Friendship Medal, and guards allowed him to pass.

Vollertsen has since become a professional pain in the ass to the governments of both North and South Korea. He has campaigned non-stop on the issue of human rights in North Korea while mercilessly criticizing the South Korean government for its complacency (in his view). In 2005 (http://www.command-post.org/nk/2_archives/cat_south_korea.html) he performed a neat trick, in briefly becoming the only persona non grata on the entire Korean peninsula. He was deported from South Korea in June of that year for actions such as releasing balloons, radios attached, directed at the North, and for attempting to toss medical supplies over the DMZ fence. He was later allowed to return to Seoul.

Here is Dr. Vollertsen's take on Robert Park's actions, along some contrasting statements from a former State Department official:

"Christian tests Pyongyang's resolutions," Asia Times Online (5 Jan 2010):


"The US government can't ignore the plight of citizens who are in trouble abroad," Fitzpatrick noted, "but I doubt the White House or State Department will be inclined to want to give away anything to gain Park's freedom, especially since he might decide in the future to do it again. It's not so much as embarrassment as an unnecessary encumbrance."

As far as Vollertsen is concerned, though, Park is accomplishing his mission by garnering publicity abroad even if he gets nowhere in spreading the word inside the North. Moreover, Vollertsen believes foreign media coverage will eventually bring about his release.

"You and your colleagues are his life insurance," he said. "He has already achieved media coverage about human-rights abuses in North Korea." If "people start to ask why he was so 'crazy'," said Vollertsen, the proper answer is that "Jesus Christ was also very radical and called crazy".

Nor does Vollertsen think Park's presence will compromise attempts at negotiations with the North. "I hope that there is a huge diplomatic issue," he said, with "a controversial debate in all the newspapers and blogs calling him an idiot and making fun about his insanity' - and more people willing to follow his example."

Fitzpatrick disagreed. "One can't help but sympathize with Park's moral courage," he told me, but might Kim Jong-il decide Park's life was not worth sparing if he were otherwise to go home with tales of his struggle to convert the heathen in Kim's kingdom? "He certainly is on the side of the angels," as Fitzpatrick put it, "but that could become literal."


January 5th, 2010, 12:28 AM
And then, right in line, is the guy hawking the vid -- who reminds us that humans are often incredibly self-serving.

The person (with)holding the video is reported to be a North Korean refugee, which puts his/her action's in some perspective. Not an excuse exactly, but poverty and desperation are undoubtedly mitigating factors, if this is the case. Still...

January 5th, 2010, 01:59 AM
But no one wants the regime to collapse in a way that leaves the surrounding enemy countries (Japan, South Korea) nuked, gassed, anthraxed, or otherwise permanently crippled.

So nothing will be done. And so it goes...

If the act of carrying a Bible and a protest letter across a frozen river in the dead of winter can bring about such an apocalypse, I submit that the peace is very fragile indeed and that Koreans and Japanese set to work immediately on building bomb shelters and equipping themselves with Hazmat suits.

The risk of the North attacking its neighbors is tiny, but since the consequences, however remote, would be devastating, they must be taken seriously. That is exactly the pathological game the DPRK has been playing, over and over, for years now. The North Korean government announces (see above) its desire for peace talks over New Years, but in May it unilaterally withdrew (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/27/north-korea-nuclear-dispute) from the 1953 armistice agreement.

Threatening military retaliation over these acts is counterproductive, and cutting off food and medical aid is inhumane, but speaking out against nuttiness need not be provocative or lead to greater distress. A steady, rational approach seems to be effective. An activist's demand that Pyongyang dismantle its concentration camps is not irrational. In fact, it might help lead the way out of this mess: if the Koreas are ever to be reunited, the less traumatized the population of the North is, the greater the likelihood for a normalized transition of North-South relations.

Kim Jong-Il is not going to attack Japan (or Hawaii or California) with nuclear weapons. He knows very well what the result would be: Pyongyang would be obliterated within a week. He's too attached to his James Bond flicks and his Hennessy XO (http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/01/08/wbr.kim.jong.il/) to let that happen.

In short, Robert Park's paltry but highly symbolic gesture will have little bearing on the success, or lack thereof, on any peace talks. The North has to want to participate in finding a solution.

January 5th, 2010, 10:14 AM
You are misreading that sentence of my post entirely.

He is a speck. His actions will not bring about an iota of difference, except the heartbreak he is bringing upon his friends and family (and taking food from the mouth of some starving North Korean). Thus my WW2 analogy (which I still believe is accurate).

My point is that to dislodge the regime would involve either an internal collapse, forceful change from without, or a violent coup. In any case their is justified fear that the last act of the departing Dear Leader would be to release his stockpile of weapons on his neighbors.

Because of this fear, the US, SK, Japan, China, Russia, etc have a policy of NOT wanting regime change. They will just keep negotiating in the vain hope they will revert to the 1990's status quo.

Probably the best case here is a swift and relatively bloodless military coup after the Dear Leaders death, followed by a China style mellowing into a capitalist/socialist style authoritarian state.

January 5th, 2010, 12:14 PM
Does Seoul still conduct air raid drills? I was in the city 14 years ago during such a drill. Everything stopped, and people had to get off the street.

Took me back to my childhood. These signs...


were everywhere.

There were regular air-raid drills in school. City sirens were tested, usually noontime.

January 5th, 2010, 12:22 PM
^ remembering the wail of the siren and walking hand in hand out of my elementary school classroom and away from school -- but not sure where we all were headed :confused:

January 5th, 2010, 12:25 PM
These signs...


were everywhere.

Until about 10 years ago there was still one of those ^ on the outside of a big downtown building across the street from where I now live. I always wondered what that basement room looked like after all those years.

January 5th, 2010, 12:30 PM
Empty cracker boxes and fat rats.