Former captive's silence speaks volumes
By Donald Kirk
What really happened to missionary Robert Park during the 43 days in which he
was held in North Korea before disavowing all his criticism of the regime and
flying on to Beijing?
Park's non-appearance at news conferences is revealing in itself. The less he
talks, the more intense is the sense that he suffered abuse after crossing the
Tumen River from China on Christmas Eve with a message demanding Dear Leader
Kim Jong-il close the gulag system in which tens of thousands of prisoners are
held, tortured and often executed.
The nature of the abuse is not clear, but it appears to have gone well beyond
the level of severe beatings, water torture, electric shock and all the other
routine techniques of North Korean police and security officials. In his case,
he had to have been in the
hands of the most experienced practitioners of all, specialists from North
Korea's National Security Agency, trained to break down the most hardened of
critics of the regime and its leader.
The mystery is compounded by the fact that the 28-year-old Park after his
return to his home in Arizona was taken against his will, apparently drugged,
to the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Long Beach, California, on March 3.
His hospital stay was cloaked in legality - he had a hearing in which he was
ruled to be "gravely disabled", at risk of either suicide or doing harm,
possibly killing, those close to him, including his parents, both immigrants
from South Korea with relatives in North Korea.
Park was not, however, a patient for long. A judge ordered his release two days
later after a hearing in which he managed to convince the court that he did not
pose a threat to anyone. That done, he was expected to give one press
conference after another - first outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington and
then, on March 15, outside the office building on Second Avenue in New York,
near the United Nations, where North Korea maintains its UN mission.
The reason for canceling the latter was a severe storm that forced the
cancellation of planes, but that excuse seems flimsy since all flights quickly
resumed and the press conference was never rescheduled.
Park, who entered North Korea at the behest of human-rights activists loosely
banded under the names, "Unify Korea", "Pax Koreana" and "Freedom and Life for
All North Koreans," appears to have been at odds with his handlers. They want
him to tell his story for the shock effect of revealing the iniquities meted
out by the North Koreans, but the truth may be so unspeakable that he wants
nothing more than to remain silent.
The worst that may have happened, in the view of those who try to follow the
sweeping record of human-rights violations in North Korea, is that he was
subjected to sexual abuse too degrading and humiliating for him to be able to
Sexual exploitation by North Korean police and security agents is hardly new.
It's well known that North Korean women have used in massage parlors, hotels
and bars in China to compromise foreign business people and missionaries in
order to gather information, and sexual torture in prisons has also become
Kang Cho-hwan, who described his decade in the Yodok camp in the book Aquariums
of Pyongyang, has written that "rape and sexual torture of female
political prisoners" have been commonplace for the past 10 years. In an article
for the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, for which he works as a reporter and commentator
on North Korea, he quotes a recent defector as saying "it has become routine
for security agents to sexually abuse female prisoners".
Another defector is quoted as describing security agents in Sinuiju, the North
Korean city across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong, as having
"stripped the female defectors regardless of their age and sexually tortured
them, while agents did things to them that are hard to describe in words".
But what are North Korean agents doing to men? Reports of business people,
notably South Korean businessmen and missionaries, caught in compromising
positions with North Korean female intelligence operatives are one thing, but
how about stripping and raping male prisoners? Kang Cho-hwan wrote in the
newspaper that "sexual abuse" of Robert Park "was probably intended to break
his will and exact a fabricated apology", but gives no details of what abuse
The implication is that North Korean interrogators used techniques similar to
those employed by rogue American soldiers guarding Iraqi prisoners at the
infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad several years ago.
NK Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts two hours daily via short-wave into
North Korea from Seoul, elaborated on North Korean "sexual torture" - "a
torture technique in which victims are physically and psychologically
attacked". The goal is for victims to "become powerless with no defense
capability during torture", said NK Open Radio. Techniques "include forcing
people to strip naked, sitting in a humiliating posture and then be raped".
Jo Sung-rae, the co-leader with Park of the human-rights coalition "Freedom and
Life for All North Koreans", was somewhat more specific in a broadcast
interview but left out details that might have been especially embarrassing.
Park "went through sexual abuse in detention conducted by North Korean women",
said Jo. "He told me that they stripped him naked, touched him, and tortured
him in a drunken state."
Park, "never having experienced sex in his whole life", according to the report
of the interview, was evidently "troubled by a feeling of shame and humiliation
after the sexual torture, even showing signs of being suicidal".
NK Radio report included lurid details on specific cases - though not on Robert
Park. A male prisoner "was told to be naked in front of men and women", said
the report. "When he disobeyed, he was brutally stepped on by security agents
while his two hands were tied." A female prisoner "was forced to do a pumping
action, repeating sitting and standing, with no clothes on and hands up".
The idea in the case of the female prisoner was "to see hidden money or jewelry
coming out of the anus or womb", said the report. "If nothing comes out, a
female agent forced us to lay down and searched inside of womb with
rubber-gloved hands. They also searched our clothes inside and out, including
brassieres." In most such cases, said NK Radio, "investigators committed these
inhumane treatments in order to extort money, although it had nothing to do
with the victims' crimes" - that is, defecting from North Korea.
The case of Robert Park could have been far worse. At a rally that I attended
in Seoul, however, Jo Sung-rae was less than forthcoming when I talked to him
afterward. "Robert Park didn't want to share this information," he told me,
explaining Park's reluctance to speak out. "He's going to read a statement in
front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington," he said, in which he would protest
the refusal of Chinese authorities to accept North Korean defectors as refugees
rather than return them to prison in North Korea. Park never appeared and never
issued that statement.
Jo offered another possible reason for his silence. "I think Robert Park is
worried about his family in Korea," he said, alluding to distant relatives who
remain in the North. "His grandmother's family on his father's side moved from
North to South Korea. He doesn't want anything bad happening to his relatives."
Could the North Koreans be holding relatives hostage to keep Park from telling
his story? That sounds possible, but it was the first I'd heard of it in this
case. And, even if true, why has Park avoided any comment, and why was he
hauled, however briefly, to a mental hospital in California?
"All North Korean people are suffering," was all Jo would tell me. "They are
his main concern."