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North Korea Says It Will Release 'Repentant' US Missionary

North Korea says it will release American Robert Park, a Christian activist who deliberately crossed into North Korea more than a month ago. Pyongyang's official news agency quotes Park as regretting his actions and having a complete change of heart about the North.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency did not specify when or how it would set free Robert Park, a 28-year-old resident of Arizona.

The report only said a North Korean agency had decided to "leniently forgive and release him, taking his admission and sincere repentance of his wrongdoings into consideration."

Fellow activists say Park intentionally crossed the frozen Tumen River from China to North Korea on Christmas Day, December 25. They say he carried a Bible and a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, urging him to "embrace God's love" and close down political prison camps.

North Korean media Friday quoted Park Friday as saying he had a "wrong understanding" of the North because of "the false propaganda made by the West to tarnish its image." He is further quoted as saying he now knows North Korea, in the words of the report, "respects the rights of all the people and guarantees their freedom."

The report says Park became convinced the North has "complete religious freedom" after being escorted to religious services in Pyongyang.

Jo Sung-rae, a fellow activist and one of Park's closest colleagues here, says even if Park said such things, he probably did not say them willingly. He says he believes Park was severely beaten in custody.

Human rights groups and North Korean defectors say government agencies routinely use torture to extract confessions and other statements.

Jo says Park is likely to be seen as a hero in the Christian activist community when he returns.

He says Park is someone who took real action to help those in desperate need. He says he views him as an equal figure to Martin Luther King, Junior.

While North Korea's constitution says there is freedom religion, defectors say religious worship is severely restricted. The country is considered to have one of the world's worst human rights records, and has tens of thousands of political prisoners.

The release announcement comes one day after President Obama said North Korea would remain off of a State Department list of nations believed to sponsor terrorism. Experts on North Korea say both actions may help thaw the relationship between the two countries, before the expected resumption of six-nation talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang recently said it had detained another American, but did not identify the person or say where he was captured.