Freedom and Life for All North Koreans, a coalition of some 100 rights activist groups, gathered on Tuesday in Imjingak Park close to the inter-Korean border and released a couple of helium balloons across the demilitarized zone carrying propaganda leaflets as well as cookies for children. The balloons were named after Robert Park, an evangelical activist who crossed the frozen border river into North Korea on Christmas Eve in a daredevil mission to draw attention to human rights abuses there.
Park crossed the frozen Duman (or Tumen) River from China as people looked on, carrying a letter for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that urges him to open the border for international shipments of food and medicine and to release political prisoners. After crossing the river, Park walked toward North Korean border guards. For the first time since the two Koreas were divided in 1945, one person has lodged a formal and direct protest against North Korea over its human rights violations.
"Do not try to secure my release until all 160,000 political prisoners in North Korean concentration camps are freed," Park told colleagues before heading across the river. His grandmother is a devout Christian from North Korea who came to South Korea after the end of World War II. Park was a missionary in the U.S. and Mexico. He began working among North Korean refugees in China in 2008 and had been doing missionary work in South Korea since last year. After deciding to head to North Korea, Park is said to have eaten only one meal a day to share the pain of North Koreans. Yet his action cannot be dismissed as a foolish mistake by a 28-year-old zealot who had no idea what would happen to him in the North.
Park's action seemed futile, but it has already begun to create ripple effects. Suzanne Scholte, a winner of the Seoul Peace Prize, and U.S. special envoy for North Korea human rights issues Robert King publicly voiced their concern for Park's safety. U.S. media, including the Christian Science Monitor, have shown interest in Park's action, and prayer meetings are taking place in South Korea for his safety.
Some South Korean government officials, however, are apparently calling his action quixotic. Born with the Korean name Park Dong-hoon, he is a U.S. citizen. But should that be an excuse for South Koreans to show so little interest in his plight?