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Activist: NKorea apparently detains US missionary

SEOUL, South Korea - SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean border guards apparently detained an American missionary as soon as he walked into the communist nation in an effort to call attention to Pyongyang's human rights abuses, an activist said Monday.

Robert Park, 28, slipped across the frozen Tumen River into the North from China on Christmas Day carrying a letter calling on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to shut down the country's political prison camps. There has been no word from him since.

Jo Sung-rae of the Seoul-based activist group Pax Koreana cited a person who witnessed Park crossing into the North as saying that voices were heard on the North Korean side as soon as Park crossed over.

Jo quoted the person, one of two people who guided Park to the crossing, as saying visibility was poor. "But he said he heard people talking loudly when Robert arrived there," Jo added. "I think they were border guards and Robert was taken into custody immediately."

Members of Park's church in Tucson, Ariz., held services Saturday and Sunday night to pray for a safe return, said the Rev. John Benson, the pastor at Life in Christ Community Church. About 70 people attended Saturday's vigil, he said.

Park's father, Pyong Park, quoted his son as saying before the journey he was "not afraid to die, as long as the whole world, all every nation pay attention to the North Korea situation, my death is nothing." The senior Park spoke to San Diego's KFMB television.

Jo said two guides, who he described as North Korean defectors, filmed Park's crossing. But one of them is demanding payment for the footage and is refusing to hand it over.

Jo, who has been the source for most information about Park, initially requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation, but is now speaking by name.

North Korea's state-run media has been silent on Park's case. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said they were aware of the incident but had no details.

Park, who is of Korean descent, was carrying a letter urging leader Kim Jong Il to step down and free all political prisoners, the activist said.

"I am an American citizen. I brought God's love. God loves you and God bless you," Park said in Korean as he crossed over near the northeastern city of Hoeryong, according to Jo. Park was holding a Bible in his right hand and a piece of paper printed with a hymn text in the other, Jo said.

Park's crossing comes just months after North Korea freed two U.S. journalists who had been arrested in March and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for trespassing and "hostile acts." Pyongyang dexterously used their detention as a negotiating card with Washington amid a standoff over its nuclear programs.

North Korea waited four days before announcing on March 21 that they had been detained.

Former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang in August to bring them home. That trip, which included a meeting between Clinton and Kim Jong Il, led to the first high-level talks between the two countries earlier this month since President Barack Obama took office.

North Korea watchers in Seoul, however, said Park's case was unlikely to develop in the same way.

"I think it will end up an isolated episode," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Dongguk University. "North Korea knows that it would be serving the purpose of the activist and highlight its human rights problems if it keeps holding him like it did the journalists."

North Korea's criminal code punishes illegal entry with up to three years in prison, but the general view of analysts is that the North must see some political gain in keeping high-profile foreigners prisoner.

In this case, holding Park might bring attention to his cause.

Park carried a letter to Kim Jong Il calling for major changes to his totalitarian regime.

"Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive," said the letter, according to a copy posted on the activist group's Web site. "Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today."

North Korea holds some 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, according to South Korean government estimates. Pyongyang has long been regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records, but it denies the existence of prison camps.

In a second letter, Park calls for Kim to immediately step down, noting starvation, torture and deaths in North Korean political prison camps, according to the activist.

Other activists in South Korea said Park had become known over the last year in Seoul human rights circles for his religious fervor and passion for helping North Koreans. Not all analysts see a simple end to the drama.

The Rev. Benson at Park's church in Tucson said he is a shy but likable man who has worked with the poor in Mexico and is constantly helping people.

"You have to understand that for this guy, when it comes to the Lord, he's very, very serious," he said. "Unusually serious."

Benson said he last talked to Park about six weeks ago.

"He was talking about the urgency of what was going on with the refugees and the atrocities he had seen," he said. "That was strong on his heart. He felt there was something more he needed to do."

Benson said he doesn't believe Park was trying to martyr himself by walking into North Korea.

"He was seeking God's will," he said. "But he did not have a death wish."

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Associated Press writers Walter Berry in Phoenix and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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