North Korea to free 'repentant' US missionary

SEOUL: North Korea announced Friday it would release a US missionary who crossed into the communist state last Christmas Day on a lone campaign to publicise its human rights abuses.

Robert Park had expressed "sincere repentance" for his actions which were prompted by "false propaganda" from the West, the North's official news agency said.

It did not say when he would be freed.

Park, 28, was held by border guards on December 25 after crossing the frozen border river from China. He carried a letter calling on leader Kim Jong-Il to release political prisoners, shut prison camps and improve rights and conditions.

"The relevant organ of the DPRK (North Korea) decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The North has said it is also detaining an American detained for illegal entry from China on January 25. That person's motives and identity are unknown and Friday's report did not mention him.

The sanctions-hit North has said it wants to improve relations with the United States after decades of hostility. As a condition for returning to stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations, it wants Washington to agree to hold formal peace talks.

"The North is making a friendly gesture towards Washington as Pyongyang is actively seeking to open dialogue with the United States," Kim Yeon-Chul, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Research Institute, told AFP.

"It also comes after President Barack Obama said that North Korea would remain off the US list of terrorist states."

KCNA carried what it said was an interview with Park.

"I trespassed on the border due to my wrong understanding of the DPRK caused by the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image," the Tucson, Arizona, resident was quoted as saying.

Park was quoted as saying that he had been treated "in a kind and gentlemanly manner" and that "religious freedom is fully ensured" in the North.

He allegedly said he was allowed to pray daily, his Bible was returned to him and he was allowed to attend a service at a Pyongyang church.

"I would not have committed such crime if I had known that the DPRK respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom and they enjoy a happy and stable life," KCNA quoted Park as saying.

US and United Nations officials, along with international rights groups, have strongly criticised the North's rights record.

The US special envoy on the subject, Robert King, last month described it as "appalling" and said Pyongyang must improve its record if it wants better relations with Washington.

Despite constitutional guarantees, "genuine religious freedom did not exist" in North Korea, according to the US State Department's latest annual rights report.

Jo Sung-Rae, a South Korean Christian rights activist involved in Park's case, said he did not trust the KCNA interview.

"When he comes out and is interviewed again, what he truly thinks will come out from the bottom of his heart," Jo told AFP. "But we do not trust the interview done by North Korea for now."

Last August former president Bill Clinton met Kim in Pyongyang to secure the release of two US journalists detained for entering the North illegally.

Pyongyang, which was hit by tougher sanctions for its 2009 nuclear test and missile launches, began making peace overtures to Seoul and Washington after that visit.