US missionary freed by North Korea is on his way home

Looking pale and drawn, an American missionary was on his way home today after being freed by North Korea, which detained him for illegally crossing its border from China on Christmas Day.

Robert Park, his eyes almost closed, made no comment as US consular officials guided him to a transit area after his arrival in Beijing's airport from North Korea.

US Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said Park would leave later in the day for the United States.

"We welcome North Korea's release of Robert Park," Stevenson said.

North Korea announced yesterday it would free Park, saying he had shown "sincere repentance." Park was detained for 43 days.

Park, 28, crossed the frozen Tumen River into North Korea 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 risk a death sentence in the totalitarian nation.

However, the North Korean government "decided to leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The report quoted Park, of Tucson, Arizona, as saying he was ashamed of the "biased" view he once held of the communist nation.

Park said he was now 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.

"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.

Park did not respond to questions from reporters yesterday asking whether he had been speaking freely or under duress.

"We are just elated that he's been released safely," the Rev. Madison Shockley, a Park family pastor in Carlsbad, California, said by phone. "We cannot wait for him to land on American soil and to hear the truth of what he discovered there."

Shockley said Park's parents were told of the release by the State Department and were very happy but almost in shock.

"The mother will only truly believe it when he is in her arms," Shockley said.

Messages left for Park's parents and brother were not immediately returned.

"We finally can relax," said the Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, Arizona, who ordained Park as a missionary. "We still had a little bit of reservation while he was still in North Korea. There was always a chance that they could change their mind."

Benson said he was skeptical of Park's statements Thursday, which he said sounded like "propaganda," and said Park may be able to speak freely once he's back in the US.

"It totally did not sound like Robert at all," Benson said.

Park's uncle in Los Angeles, Manchul Cho, said he was thrilled by the rapid developments after weeks of silence from Pyongyang.

"The progress has been so fast," Cho said. "North Korea never talked about him. It was total darkness."