“Hugging him, there didn’t seem to be anything broken,” said Paul Park, who said he was speechless when he spotted his brother walking off the plane.
The greeting took place in a private location but the family spoke to reporters briefly as they left the airport. A thin and pale Park – who flew from Pyongyang to Beijing after North Korea announced Friday he would be freed – would not speak and kept his eyes downcast while Paul Park told reporters his brother is in good condition.
Robert Park, of Tucson, Arizona, crossed the frozen Tumen River from China into North Korea on Dec. 25, carrying letters calling on leader Kim Jong Il to close the country’s notoriously brutal prison camps and step down from power. Those acts could have risked execution in the hardline communist country.
The family did not know Robert Park had planned to cross into North Korea until about 14 hours before he did it, Paul Park said. He said they were informed of the plan during an international phone call. He didn’t specify any further.
“I have to admit, I didn’t believe it until I saw it on the international news,” Paul Park said of his brother’s crossing into North Korea. “To say that the family wasn’t prepared would be putting it mildly.”
The family didn’t have time during their brief airport reunion to ask whether he had been mistreated by North Korean officials, Paul Park said. They also didn’t get a chance to ask him about a statement that North Korea attributed to him on Friday, he said.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted Park as saying he was ashamed of the “biased” view he once held of the country.
Robert Park said he was now convinced “there’s complete religious freedom for all people everywhere” in North Korea, citing the return of the Bible he carried as he entered the country 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.
Robert Park didn’t respond to questions from reporters when he arrived in Beijing about whether he had been speaking freely or under duress.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government severely restricts religious observance, only allowing worship – primarily by foreigners – at sanctioned churches. Defectors say underground worship and the distribution of Bibles can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
KCNA said Park told the news agency he had felt compelled to go to North Korea to draw attention to reported rights abuses and mass killings, even if it meant risking his life.
North Korea is regarded as having one of the world’s worst human rights records, with some 154,000 political prisoners held in six camps across the country, according to the South Korean government.
“We finally can relax,” said the Rev. John Benson, a pastor in Tucson, 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.”
The family planned to feed him spaghetti for dinner – his favorite meal growing up.
“Right now, the biggest thing is, we love him and we’re excited to have him back,” Paul Park said. “And I’m really excited because I got to make probably the biggest of my New Year’s resolutions, which was to get him back home and give him a hug.”
This was the second time in less than a year that an American has been held by North Korea, which doesn’t have diplomatic ties with the U.S. Two female journalists were released in August with former President Bill Clinton’s help after they were arrested at the border and sentenced to prison.
Last month, North Korea notified the U.S. that it has yet another American in custody for allegedly entering the country illegally. That person has not been identified by either Pyongyang or the U.S. State Department.By Associated Press Writer Gillian Flaccus; AP writers Cara Anna, Charles Hutzler, Andrew Dalton, Walter Berry, Elliot Spagat, Jean H. Lee and Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report