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North Korea Confirms Illegal Entry By 'US Citizen'

Kurt Achin

North Korea appears to have confirmed reports of incursion last week by an American religious activist. Colleagues say Robert Park stepped into the North from China on Christmas day. What North Korea will do with him remains an open question.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency published a brief report Tuesday saying "a U.S. citizen illegally entered the country," and that the person was "under investigation by a relevant agency."

The report offers likely confirmation of U.S. activist Robert Park's journey into the North on December 25, which fellow activists say was intended to bring a Christian message of human rights to leader Kim Jong Il.

Pyongyang says he was arrested on December 24, but gives no other details.

North Korea's totalitarian system tolerates virtually no outside influences, and religious freedom is severely restricted. More than 150,000 people are believed to live in harsh labor camps, many of them sentenced for minor political transgressions of which they or a family member were accused.

Park's fate is now the subject of widespread speculation ranging from rapid deportation to imprisonment. Park told the Reuters news agency last week he was willing to lay down his life to bring about change in the North.

"If he [Kim Jong-il] kills me, in a sense, I realize this is better," said Park. "Then the governments of the world will become more prone to say something, and more embarrassed and more forced to make a statement."

Ryoo Kihl-jae, dean of Kyungnam University Graduate School of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says there are natural comparisons to another case earlier this year.

He says this is somewhat similar to the case of two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were held for some five months and sentenced to imprisonment after crossing into the North on a reporting trip. Professor Ryoo believes North Korea will sentence Park, just it did the two American women, and that his case will not be resolved anytime soon.

Others experts think North Korea may deport Park soon, to avoid making him a hero of the human rights movement.

While North Korea considers its next move, a tug-of-war is developing over video Park apparently had shot just before he entered the country. The video allegedly shows Park praying by the river between China and North Korea.

News reports say a North Korean defector who helped make the video is demanding more than $80,000 for its release.

Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean activist close to Park, says that contradicts his wishes to have the video released to the world.

He says the video is not something to be sold. It should be released to the public, he says, and not belong exclusively to anyone.