The American protester – hero or fool? - Monocolumn | Monocle


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11 January 2010

A would-be Christian martyr’s infiltration of the world’s most forbidding state on Christmas Day has both frustrated and inspired fellow North Korea activists.

Robert Park, 28, a Korean-American Christian who accuses Pyongyang of genocide against its own people, walked across the freezing China/North Korea on Christmas Day armed with a letter demanding Kim Jong-il step down. His move took place against a background of global and South Korean indifference to the plight of North Koreans – an indifference that disheartens activists and which may have stimulated Park.

“I think he reached a point of exasperation when he saw the indifference of South Korean society and was particularly tortured that the church community shrugged its shoulders,” says Tim Peters, an American missionary whose group, Helping Hands, assists North Korean defectors in China. “It pained Robert deeply because he is ethnically Korean and for him to run up against a cold wall of insensitivity, indifference and materialism in the South Korean church caused him enormous suffering.”

North Korea lies just 35 miles from Seoul, but South Koreans pay little attention to “Kim’s Kingdom”: Nuclear and missile tests are greeted with a sangfroid that would astonish readers of international news headlines. By the same token, the well-being of North Koreans – 200,000 of whom may be suffering in brutal gulags – meets similar apathy. Although South Korea is noted for mass rallies and street politics, anti-North Korean demonstrations rarely generate crowds of over 50.

“South Koreans don’t care about human rights in North Korea any more than they do in Cuba or China,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “To them, North Korea is just another country that happens to speak the same language.”

While activists often bemoan the low profile of North Korean issues, charity groups that operate circumspectly in the dangerous North/China border worry about Park’s move. The seizure of American TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee in March compromised activist networks, and there are fears Park’s action could lead to increased border security.

“This kind of stunt has an effect on the aid and human rights workers who are doing good work in the border area,” says Erica Kang of Good Friends, a Buddhist charity that assists North Korean defectors.

But missionary Peters, who operates on the border, admires Park’s integrity. “I take issue with his tactics,” he says. “But I have deep admiration for his Christian commitment and sense of sacrifice.”

And sacrifice it could turn out to be. Pundits who shrugged off hysterical American concerns about the wellbeing of the female reporters – who got nowhere near the gulag, but were comfortably confined in a “state guest house” during negotiations over their release – fear that Park faces a real sentence.

“The big difference from the two journalists is this is a deliberate challenge,” says Lankov. “Nobody would follow the girls deliberately, but if Park is released, it would create a precedent for other activists to go in and criticize the ‘Dear Leader.’”

Other activists are, indeed, inspired.

“There is only a radical option left,” says German Norbert Vollertsen, a former aid doctor in North Korea who turned against the regime. “I am ready to cross the border too.”


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