EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — A missionary who was imprisoned for 15 months after trying to aid North Korean refugees in China has returned home to a greeting of balloons and flowers from delighted relatives and friends.
Wearing a baseball hat and dark sunglasses Monday night on his arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Rev. Phillip Jun Buck, 68, said returning home was like being in a "dream state."
Buck, who lives in Everett and preaches at Bethany Church in Edmonds, said he prayed for North Korean inmates with whom he had been imprisoned since May 2005.
"They know the old man has finally returned home," he said as his daughter, Grace Yoon, translated.
A son, Jamin Yoon, 35, holding flowers as his father was swarmed by reporters, said his father's attire was chosen to shield his appearance in case the longtime evangelist decided to try to go back to China for more missionary work.
"It doesn't look like he's going to quit," the son said with a laugh.
Buck, who provided shelter and work for North Koreans in northeastern China, was convicted in December of trying to sneak North Korean refugees through China into South Korea. He could have faced up to 20 years in prison but was sentenced recently to deportation and a ban on re-entry to China.
Despite widespread famine in North Korea, China considers the thousands of North Koreans who cross its borders to be economic refugees, much as many in the United States view illegal immigrants from Latin America, said David Bachman, a professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Relations at the University of Washington.
"China has made it really clear that it would discourage North Koreans from fleeing across the border," Bachman said.
Although activists concerned with religious freedom agitated openly for Buck's release, his four adult children shunned publicity while pressing for action from Congress and government agencies.
His case was raised at a congressional subcommittee hearing in April and featured at a Christian rock festival in Midland, Texas, where President Bush grew up.
"The family deserves every bit of the credit for being diligent about their father's plight," said Jeff Bjornstad, chief of staff for Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., co-chairman of the House U.S.-China Working Group.