The Holocaust has inevitably played an important role in the way I view the world and our responsibility to our neighbors. Knowing the facts of this genocide and the world’s complete failure to act in the face of it has led me to commit to do whatever I can to prevent such atrocities from occurring in this world again.
When I first met Robert Park, the Tucson activist who went to North Korea on Christmas of 2009, I was astounded by his boldness and his compassion. Simone Weil, the Jewish mystic and philosopher from the World War II-era, was a key influence on his thought and life during his formative years as a teenager. While still very young, Robert committed himself to a kind of secular monastic life, embracing the disciplines of celibacy, poverty and a life of selfless service to those who are less fortunate.
Inspired by Weil’s teachings, he renounced his material wealth to live the life of a servant, ministering to the homeless and working with reverence as a caregiver for individuals with developmental disabilities. It was through him that a church I attended and many other churches and groups in Arizona found out about a community in need in Nogales, Mexico. He lived and served faithfully in the garbage dumps of Nogales for several years, becoming a close brother and friend to all those that he would meet. They called him “Hermano Tonghoon”; Tonghoon being his Korean name. Robert lived fearlessly and joyfully, seeking to adhere always to the principle of love and compassion for all.
When he went to North Korea in 2009, he went because of the realization that North Korea was actively committing genocide and the world either did not know or did not care. His closest friends became North Korean refugees whose family members had been starved, tortured or beaten to death. Robert came to love these individuals more than life itself. During this time, Holocaust resisters such as Hannah Senesh and Jan Karski became a source of inspiration and strength to him.
Korea’s sorrow and tragedy became his own and those who communicated with him before Dec. 25, 2009 can tell you that ending the genocide and liberation for the North Korean people had become his sole focus.
Released on Feb. 6, 2010, today, Robert suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of the torture he experienced at the hands of the North Korean regime. He has attempted suicide twice, has frequent nightmares, and has become estranged from friends who have not understood the depths of his pain, his urgency, and his inability to forget the suffering of the North Korean people for even one moment, or in other words, to move on with his life.
Yet deep in Robert’s heart the fire of love and compassion continues to burn. In spite of fears and hardships, he continues to advocate and fight for this cause. He wrote an editorial for the Washington Post published in April entitled “When will we stop the genocide in North Korea?”, which was one of the first to argue that North Korea is committing much more than human rights violations, but genocide according to international law. Another article was published this month in the Harvard International Review. He is coordinating with people in Korea for a historic movement of non-violent protest, and is working closely with North Korean defectors.
For those in the Jewish community wondering about Robert’s status and wanting to support or encourage him in anyway: please take some form of action to stop the atrocities taking place in North Korea right now. I know that when the North Koreans are free and their human rights respected, Robert will also become free and whole again.
Anna Cahn, a Tucson resident, may be contacted at [email protected].