By BosNewsLife Asia Service
PYONGYANG/SEOUL (BosNewsLife)– Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived in North Korea Wednesday, August 25, to try to win the release of a devoted American Christian who has been jailed for illegally entering the isolated state earlier this year. Aijalon Mahli Gomes, aged 30 from Boston, Massachusetts, entered North Korea on January 25 to protest human rights abuses in the communist nation, fellow rights activists said.
He crossed the border from China exactly one month after activist Robert Park, a Korean-American, entered the country. Gomes was sentenced to eight years in one of North Korea’s notorious labor camps and also ordered to pay a fine of $700,000 for illegal entry and unspecified “hostile acts”.
Carter’s visit came weeks after North Korea said Gomes attempted to commit suicide and was being treated at a hospital. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the attempt was “driven by his strong guilty conscience” and despair that the U.S. government had not tried to gain his freedom. It was impossible to independently verify the reported suicide attempt.
Before leaving for North Korea, Gomes was known to have regularly attended prayer meetings and rallies for North Korean human rights in the United States and reportedly taught English at Choong-eui middle school in Pocheon, South Korea, from 2008-2009.
His colleagues described him as “a devout Christian”. Gomes’ arrest marked the third time North Koreans detained U.S. citizens within the past year and followed the detention of Robert Park and the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, all of whom were released after several months in North Korean custody.
Observers said it was likely that Carter would be able to bring Gomes home as well at a time when North Korea hopes to gain some leverage amid renewed sanctions squeezing its broken economy. International pressure has been mounting on the North after the sinking of a South Korean warship this year.
The country has little it can export except weaponry and has been hard hit by United Nations sanctions that have made it tougher to sell missiles and other arms overseas, according to observers visiting the country and analysts.
It was not clear whether Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, would also discuss fresh concerns over human rights abuses in the country where thousands of Christians are believed to be detained in concentration camps.
Reports have emerged from North Korea of the alleged execution of three Christians and the imprisonment of at least 20 others after they attended a prayer meeting.
Last week advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) urged European Union Foreign Ministers in a letter to call for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry “to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea”.