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Jumping into a Tiger’s Cave

Posted December. 28, 2009 00:11,   


Dr. Norbert Vollertsen of the German aid group Cap Anamur Committee conducted medical activities in North Korea from 1997 to 2000. Pyongyang thanked him by awarding him the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Friendship Medal after he donated skin from his thigh to a worker who suffered serious burns. The German doctor, however, has been a thorn in the North’s side since October 2000, when then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the communist country. He was deported from the North for allegedly guiding foreign journalists accompanying Albright to regions deemed off limits and criticizing Pyongyang. Since then, he has been telling the world of the misery in the North and urging improvement of human rights there.

Korean American Robert Park, who crossed the Tumen River to enter the North Christmas Day, is a human rights activist like Vollertsen. Like the saying “Blood is thicker than water,” Park’s affection and compassion for North Koreans might be greater than Vollertsen’s. A source from Freedom and Life for All North Koreans 2009, a human rights group focusing on North Korea, quoted Park as saying, “As an American citizen, I came to (North Korea to) deliver God’s message.” It is easy to imagine that armed with his faith based on his belief in human rights, he walked confidently into the North and was arrested by North Korean soldiers.

Park is not the first American to cross the North Korean border. Evan Hunziker, whose father was an American and mother a Korean, crossed the Yalu River in August 1996. He was immediately detained and accused of being a spy for South Korea. Three months later, U.S. congressman Bill Richardson visited and successfully negotiated Hunziker’s release with the North. In March this year, two American journalists crossed the North Korean border for reporting and were detained for five months. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton got them released after flying to Pyongyang for talks. These two cases confirmed that the North considers as felons foreigners who illegally enter the country but mean no hostility toward it. Facilitating their release is also by no means easy.

Park’s case is more complicated, however. He went to the North with a letter to its leader Kim Jong Il urging the closing of the North’s concentration camps, release of political prisoners, and Kim’s resignation as leader. Park broke a taboo that North Koreans could never dream of violating and jumped into a tiger’s cave where the enemy awaits. The world is watching whether Pyongyang will take a humanitarian stance given that he risked his life to help North Koreans gain universal rights that all of humanity should have.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyung-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)