A glimmer of hope for man held in N. Korea

One specialist says the North might be willing to talk about Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who reportedly attempted suicicde. One specialist says the North might be willing to talk about Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who reportedly attempted suicicde.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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It took less than two weeks for a group of Russian spies arrested in several US cities to make their way home to Moscow in a storybook spy swap.

But for Aijalon Mahli Gomes, the 31-year-old Boston man serving an eight-year prison term for entering North Korea illegally, there has been no quick diplomatic rescue.

The North Korean official news agency reported on Friday that Gomes, who was arrested on Jan. 25 after crossing into North Korea, had attempted suicide and was being treated in a hospital in the capital, Pyongyang. The US State Department responded by calling yet again for his release on humanitarian grounds.

The contrast between the speedy resolution of the case involving the Russian spies and Gomes’s plight in North Korea reflects the dramatic difference between the improving US-Russian relationship and the worsening tensions between the isolated North Korean regime and the rest of the world.

Now, however, one North Korea expert says there may be a glimmer of hope for Gomes in what he sees as recent signals from North Korea and the United States that they want to move beyond the high-stakes confrontation over the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors.

Sung-Yoon Lee, an adjunct professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said yesterday that North Korea had responded with restraint to a UN statement on Friday that condemned the sinking but stopped short of blaming the North directly.

“I am usually not an optimist with North Korea, but it may be a positive sign in the sense that North Korea is indicating it really wants to release him for the right price, whatever that may be,’’ Lee said.

As the confrontation over the ship’s sinking ratcheted up, the North threatened to treat Gomes as a prisoner of war, rather than a lone activist who crossed into the North to protest human ights violations there.

Gomes, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine and a devout Christian, had been teaching English in South Korea for a couple of years. He was reported to have attended protests calling for the release of American missionary Robert Park, who was arrested when he crossed into the North on Christmas Day. Park, who was released in February after 43 days in custody, was reportedly mistreated by his jailers and received medical treatment in California after his release.

Gomes, who grew up in Mattapan, was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and ordered to pay a fine of $700,000. He was convicted of crossing the border illegally and of an unspecified “hostile act.’’

Lee said North Korea rarely holds Americans more than a few months, “and prolonged detainment of Mr. Gomes doesn’t advance North Korea’s interests.’’

“He has no intelligence value,’’ said Lee. “So maybe they are making gestures to the US, and signaling, ‘We want to work out a deal.’ ’’

Neither North Korean nor US officials have shed much light on Gomes’s condition. The official North Korean news agency said he had attempted suicide because he felt his government hadn’t done enough to obtain his release.

State Department spokesman Marc C. Toner said on Friday that Swedish diplomats, who represent US interests in North Korea, had visited Gomes for the eighth time. He declined to comment on the suicide report or on Gomes’s condition, citing privacy concerns.

Gomes’s family in Boston has consistently declined to comment beyond saying through spokeswoman Thaleia Schlesinger that they are concerned for his well-being and hope he will be released soon on humanitarian grounds, as were Park and two other detained Americans in the past year. Gomes’ mother was allowed a phone call with him in April.

The international brinksmanship ultimately revolves around the North Korean nuclear threat and the attempts to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table to end its nuclear weapons program.

Lee said it was significant that after Friday’s relatively muted UN statement, North Korea hinted it might return to the stalled six-country negotiations over its nuclear program, a key strategic goal of the Obama administration.

So just as the worsening tensions aggravated Gomes’ prospects in the past few months, Lee said, the possibility that North Korea may return to negotiations raises hopes for his eventual release.

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His e-mail is top stories on Twitter

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