New Korean-American Messiah Crosses the Tumen (Updated)

One Free Korea carries a vital and extensive report on the latest international incident on the North Korea-China border:

Reuters is reporting that Robert Park, a 28 year-old American, has walked across the Tumen River from China to the North Korean town of Hoeryong, which is infamous for being both the birthplace of Kim Jong Il’s mother and the the town nearest to Camp 22. Park’s apparent objectives were (1) to get himself arrested and (2) thereby raise global attention about North Korea’s brutal political prison camps. Rest assured that Park will accomplish Objective Number One. The North Korean soldiers who arrested Laura Ling and Euna Lee in March are still being lauded as heroes.

The North Koreans have yet to confirm that they have Park in custody.

Park was known, but not well known, among American activists working to bring attention to North Korean human rights issues, help North Korean refugees, and pressure North Korea and the governments that sustain it with aid. Fellow activists who’ve e-mailed me in the last several hours describe Park as something of a fringe figure. If Park was plugged into any activist organization, it must have been South Korean. Yet Park obviously wasn’t acting completely alone, and this stunt appears to have been premeditated.

Park was in Seoul on December 22, where he met with Reuters reporters (in all likelihood Jon Herskocvitz) who took this photo:

Robert Park in Seoul, Dec. 22, 2009, via Reuters - click image for the link

According to Reuters’ report (of a Dec. 22 interview which was posted 15 hours ago, late on Dec. 25), it appears that Park gave the news agency notice of his plan:

Robert Park, 28, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul December 22, 2009. The U.S. human rights activist trying to raise global attention about the suffering of the North Korean people has crossed into the reclusive state, other activists and South Korean media said on Saturday. Park told to Reuters in Seoul earlier this week that he saw it as his duty as a Christian to make the journey and did not want the U.S. government to try to free him.

An evolving aggregate of variations on the story is available here.  However, none of which as yet has anything particularly fresh to add as yet, except for that his friends testify he walked across the border during a big snowstorm and that the U.S. State Department as yet has no comment.  All I can say is that I would not want to be those guys’ cabbie.

An image gallery of his December 22 interview is available here; this story by Kim Tae-kwon is one of the better ones to have yet appeared:

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it is looking into Park’s case, but it had no details.
“His fate to us is unknown,” said embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson. She said a charitable organization, which did not identify, had notified the State Department in Washington of Park’s actions.
The activist said Park came to South Korea in July and stayed there until leaving for China earlier this week to enter the North. “I would not go to North Korea to live. Even if I die, world leaders should really repent for keeping silence” on North Korea, Park said in Seoul before leaving for China, the activist said.
The activist said Pax Koreana is affiliated with another organization called Freedom and Life For All North Koreans, which is a coalition of advocacy groups for North Korean human rights. Park is a member of the broader group, he said. The coalition and other activist groups plan to hold rallies in New York, Tokyo, Seoul and other cities from Sunday to Thursday.

Unlike his predecessors Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who at least made an effort to run away, Park made it exceptionally easy for the North Koreans to nab him.  In fact, it seems his friends filmed the episode.  Onsung County, where the Current TV reporters had attempted to cross, is certainly heavily militarized, but Hoeryong is something else even more heavily fortified.  Kim Jong Il has paid particular attention to the city in 2009.

Hoeryong is the sixth largest city in the DPRK, and lies clustered up between a large mountain, the Tumen River (which is certainly frozen, as NK is in a major cold snap), and China above.  Kim Jong Il regards it closely, as his mother was born there.  After a visit by Kim in Feb. 2009, Hoeryong was one of the few North Korean cities, only along with Pyongyang, to receive food rations from the government, although potatoes rather than rice seems to be the dominant staple of the day.  (See Radio Free Korea, “Potatoes Replace Rice Ration in Hoeryong.”)

Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, visited the city to buck up spirits on May 30th, urging participation in the 150 day battle campaign while also probably trying to squelch rumors she was in poor health/ incapacitated by breast cancer and angling for Kim Jong Eun in the politics of succession [link removed].  In other words, it is a city closely aligned with the Kim family and, as such, has the security to back it up.  [For comprehensive background on Kim Kyong-hui, see this entry in Mike Madden’s NK Leadership Watch blog.]

Park’s action may be judged doubly galling by Kim Jong-il because it impinges upon celebrations for his mother Kim Jong Suk’s birthday.  Though Kim Jong Suk died in 1949, she has assumed saintly proportions in North Korea’s holy trinity, and her hometown is none other than Hoeryong.  The Daily NK carries a helpful report on the December 24 connection.

North Korea Freedom Coalition has nothing to say about Hoeryong or the incident yet, but their page indicates that Park’s bold move may have some support among the community of human rights groups.

Xinhua and the Chinese media appear to be holding their cards at the moment.  The DailyNK’s Chinese page, which is available in the PRC, has nothing yet on Robert Park.  Nor does the Choson Ilbo’s Chinese page, favoring instead some angry rhetoric about Japan.  For the time being, our favorite nationalistic paper on the mainland, the Huanqiu Shibao, is ignoring Mr. Park and running some standard items aligning China with South Korea’s ambassadorial complaints to Japan about textbook revisions.

I would assume, given the sensitivities of both China and North Korea about cross-border incidents, that no Chinese stories will be emerging about this without due consideration, e.g., that we will have to wait until next week when Qin Gang or the PRC Foreign Ministry has to deal with this at a press conference.  Robert Park did the Christmas Eve walk into North Korea, but he also just missed the PRC Foreign Ministry’s press conference, meaning that Qin Gang Jiang Yu had a cakewalk and just hit softballs about how great everything was going with France.  Having perused Park’s documentary ephemera, it doesn’t appear that much of his opprobrium at all is aimed at China, even though the PRC is a logical destination for millions if the DPRK were to follow Park’s advice and “open the border.”

It’s worth recalling that we are standing at a juncture of great delicacy in the North Korean-US relationship, and in China’s relations with North Korea. China has been going through preparations in the aftermath of Hu Jintao’s apparent invitation of Kim Jong Il to Beijing.  Park’s border leap comes just days after Chinese VP/Vice-Chairman/heir apparent Xi Jinping took the bait at a press conference in Seoul and talked openly  — if briefly — about the refugee question. To my knowledge, that’s one of the first public instances of a CCP figure taking it on — even if we’re talking about one sentence: “将根据国际法、国内法及人道主义原则处理,”which I render as: “[China] will handle [the refugee issue] according to international law, domestic law and humanitarian principles.” (My more extensive critique of the Daily NK translation on this story is posted on Joshua Stanton’s blog here.)  But now that North Korea is under pressure again, it’s likely that China will back up their old ally.

Chinese Vice-Chairman Xi Jinping refines his remarks prior to talks with his counterpart in Seoul, December 17, 2009 -- via 中国评论新闻网

Xi’s remark, however, opens the possibility (of which NK is probably terrified) that China could at some point lean upon the various international conventions which have been mentioned at multiple points in this blog.  I think that’s fairly remarkable, particularly given how scripted and bland the CCP leaders tend to be. In other words, this isn’t an off-the-cuff remark, it represents a kind of party consensus and should make the North Koreans rather nervous.

Thus we will need to watch and nitpick future responses on the Park episode, or on North Korean relations more broadly, from the Foreign Ministry.  Reuters and other news agencies, and even the Foreign Ministry itself, have a bad habit of making inexact or misleading translations of items pertaining to the North Korean border.

Finally, to emphasize again the delicacy of the present moment we’re also waiting on a return letter from Kim Jong Il to Obama, among other things, like a formal end to the Korean War.  It’s unlikely under these circumstances that Robert Park is going to create a game change in the fundamentals of what is going on.  That is, unless he bumps would-be terrorists from the front pages *(and he ought to — as catching crazies on airplanes should just be a routine matter at this point!) and gets some traction in the U.S.

However, he’s succeeded in focusing our eyes back on the Sino-North Korean frontier, for which, although the poor bastard is probably getting tortured as we speak, I suppose we should be thankful.

Hat tip to Joshua Stanton, who is, yet again, way out front on this story.  I can only imagine that Robert Park’s friends  in Manchuria are running like hell at the moment…


  1. You have either misrepresented or erroneously reported my blog post about Kim Kyong-hui to which you have linked. There is nothing in that post’s text about Ms. Kim traveling to North Hamgyong, or even remotely suggesting that Ms. Kim was campaigning for Kim Jong-un.

    1. It’s the latter: erroneous reporting. Correction made — the link should be more representative now of the content of your November 15 post. Thanks for noting the mistake. If only peer review were this fast in the print world…

      I would assume that Robert Park was attempting to call attention to Camp 22 rather than the geographical vintage of the Kim clan.

      In attempting to figure out where I went wrong with your reference, I ran across your earlier post regarding Kim Kyong-hui’s trip to South Hamgyong in June 2009, which is still a good distance from Hoeryong.

      And while I’m figuring out how to use your blog, I find that I should rather link to this post on Han Hung-p’yo, the new Chair of the People’s Committee of North Hamgyong. I doubt, however, that he’ll be giving any press conferences.

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