BEIJING // Robert Park, the US Christian activist released by Pyongyang last month after trespassing on Christmas Day, was sexually tortured during his detention, news reports and a close associate said. Much remains murky about what happened to Mr Park during his 43-day ordeal in North Korea after his illegal entry into the country via China. He claimed that he had entered North Korea to confront leader Kim Jong Il about the country's dismal human-rights record.
The North's state media, Korean Central News Agency, showed an interview on February 5 in which Mr Park apologised for his "misperception" of the reclusive country's human-rights conditions, which had been "influenced by the West's propaganda". "I realised that [in North Korea] religious freedom is guaranteed - I felt ashamed. I sincerely apologise," he said. The next day, he was released. He was flown from Pyongyang to Beijing, where he did not answer any questions from media and flew directly to the United States. Until last weekend, little was known of his whereabouts.
On Saturday, South Korean media outlets said Mr Park had been released from a mental hospital in California where he had sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety after claiming he had been sexually tortured in North Korea. A close associate of Mr Park told The National that the activist was indeed a victim of severe physical and psychological abuse, including sexual torture. "Robert told me that a very cruel sexual torture was carried out on him. He said North Korea is a regime more brutal than the Nazis," said Jo Sung-rae, a lawyer who heads a North Korean human-rights advocacy group in Seoul.
"A few women entered the room where Robert was held in North Korea. They touched, groped him - and a very humiliating, indescribable thing happened," Mr Jo said. "North Korea knows human weakness so well." Mr Park burst into tears while he was confiding this detail to him, Mr Jo said. South Korean media outlets on Saturday headlined with Mr Park's sexual torture. Mr Jo said he decided to share this detail with The National - which Robert Park had not even shared with his parents - because he felt compelled to proactively respond to the situation "before people begin to think strange things about it".
After his release, Mr Park contemplated committing suicide, according to Mr Jo. "I told him that suicide and martyrdom are different. I told him his noble cause to become a martyr in North Korea was already fulfilled with his tremendous ordeal there." Before his crossing into North Korea, Mr Park left a note in which he said he did not want the US government to intervene to rescue him because he was going there to become a martyr.
Some people link Mr Park's case to that of a similar case in 1996. A US evangelist, Evan Hunziker, swam to North Korea from China across the Yalu River, drunk and naked, and was detained for 90 days. He was released and returned to the United States, but committed suicide one month later in a hotel in Tacoma, Washington. In North Korea, the 28-year-old Mr Park, from Tucson, Arizona, was also subjected to severe physical abuse, Mr Jo said. When he crossed the border in December, he was reported to have shouted, "I am an American citizen. I am bringing God's love." When he was accosted by North Korean border guards, he also proclaimed that Mr Kim should repent and resign, a statement perceived as defamatory by the guards and which led to beatings, according to Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, which cited a source from North Korea.
"Robert was severely beaten for three days. It took a month for him to be able to even barely move his body. During this time, he was fed through a hose," Mr Jo said. Despite Mr Park's ordeal in North Korea, some remain critical of his act. A North Korean defector in South Korea, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Park was naive and "went to North Korea without knowing North Korea". Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, disagreed: "Park's act could be seen as courageous. Park also succeeded in raising awareness for human rights conditions in North Korea."
After news reports about Mr Park came out over the weekend, South Korean bloggers debated the effectiveness of his act. Some questioned why Mr Park himself has been keeping silent. He had been scheduled to hold a press conference on February 26 in the United States, but the event was cancelled. Mr Park is reported to want to come back to Seoul again soon to engage in a North Korea human rights campaign, "but I think he needs good rest for the time being", Mr Jo said.