SEOUL, South Korea — A Korean-American missionary held captive in North Korea for six weeks after illegally crossing into the country late last year alleged Wednesday that his interrogators tortured him.
Robert Park walked over a frozen river into North Korea on Christmas Day, shouting that he brought God's love and carrying a letter urging the totalitarian regime to relinquish power and free its political prisoners. He held a Bible and letters addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The 28-year-old was quickly arrested by border guards and held in Pyongyang before North Korea released him in early February, saying Park had admitted to committing a crime and had repented.
Nearly nine months after his release and back on the Korean peninsula for a visit to Seoul, Park said the confession and contrition were extracted with force.
"My only regret is ... the false confession," Park told The Associated Press in an interview in Seoul. "People start to know how evil North Korea was and they know the confession was a lie. They knew the confession was false."
A pale-looking Park, who is from Tucson, Arizona, alleged he was beaten by the border guards who detained him and that his North Korean interrogators tortured him. He said some of the abuse was sexual in nature but refused to provide details.
"What happened was very humiliating. You know ... there are damages that are maybe permanent," he said, calling the abuse "devastating."
"I struggled with suicide a great deal since I left North Korea," he said. "I almost committed suicide. Thankfully my family and friends helped me in America, and they placed me in a hospital."
North Korea, long criticized for alleged human rights abuses, has been accused of carrying out public executions and maintaining an extensive network of political prison camps where torture is thought to be common. The regime is believed to house some 154,000 inmates in six gulags where beatings, rape and other sexual abuses are common, according to South Korean officials and experts.
The regime denies the allegations.
Park's account of his detention, however, stands in contrast to those of the three other Americans who have been detained by North Korea since early last year. None of the three said they were tortured.
Aijalon Gomes, who reportedly was following Park's example when he crossed into North Korea, was treated "superbly," according to doctors who examined him in Boston after his release.
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee — who contend they were on the Chinese side of the border when they were detained — recounted more difficult conditions, including being forced to confess to crimes and being kept in cramped, dark rooms. But they have not alleged any abuse.
All three were released following the visits of former American presidents to North Korea.
Park, hiding behind his bangs, kept his eyes downcast throughout the interview and shouted with emotion when asked to explain in detail how he was treated in the North.
Park said he doesn't regret crossing into North Korea, saying he remains "deeply distressed" by the suffering of North Koreans, and still believes extreme measures are needed to force change in the closed country.
"We need to be radical. We need to need be extreme because there are lives that are stake," he said.
Park said he overheard his North Korean interrogators discussing one day whether to send him to a gulag or to execute him.
Park said he told them: "Go ahead and kill me!"
Despite the abuse, he maintains he was right to cross into the North.
"How can I spend Christmas season living in luxury, exchanging gifts and doing whatever we wanted in a democratic society while in North Korea they are still in a hell?"