Religion has provided a powerful impulse for some to cross the North Korean border.
North Korea officially guarantees freedom of religion, but outside analysts and defectors describe the country as militantly anti-religious. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean imprisonment or execution, defectors have said. “It is one of the last frontiers to spread the Christian faith, so there are people who would take unimaginable risks” to evangelize there, John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul said.
A Bible in his hand, American missionary Robert Park walked into North Korea on Christmas Day 2009 to draw attention to human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of then-leader Kim Jong Il. Park, who was deported from the country in February 2010, has said he was tortured by interrogators.
In 2010, ex-President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.
Gomes … may have been emulating Park, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Gomes attended rallies in Seoul calling for Park’s release before he was arrested.
Park later said he didn’t want others to repeat his actions. “I don’t want others to do this. I just hoped that this could galvanize people to action. Because this is a society that needs change now,” he told The Washington Post in February 2011.