American sentenced to 8 years of hard labor for entering North Korea

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, had taught English in South Korea.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, had taught English in South Korea. (Ahn Young-joon/associated Press)
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By Blaine Harden
Thursday, April 8, 2010

TOKYO -- An American has been sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined the equivalent of $700,000 for illegal entry into North Korea.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, who had taught English in South Korea, is the fourth U.S. citizen in a little more than a year to walk into North Korea from China and get arrested.

Two TV journalists received 12-year sentences last June but were allowed to leave the country after former president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. A missionary who entered the North on Christmas to protest human rights abuses was released in February after what the government described as his "sincere repentance."

Gomes, also a human rights activist, seems likely to be used by North Korea as a bargaining chip as it negotiates with the United States and four other countries over the resumption of stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

North Korea could be in a mood to talk, as there are widespread reports of starvation deaths inside the country due to a bad harvest and bungled currency reform that disrupted food markets. In addition, U.N. sanctions are believed to be squeezing the government, limiting its sales of arms and missiles.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Gomes, who entered North Korea on Jan. 25, was tried Tuesday in Pyongyang, with representatives of the Swedish Embassy in attendance. Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the North, Swedish diplomats look after the interests of U.S. citizens. "The accused admitted all the facts which had been put under accusation," the news agency said.

The legal system in North Korea is regarded by international legal experts as a sham that is manipulated to serve the interests of top officials in a government often described as the most repressive in the world.

Gomes is from Boston and graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine. A spokeswoman for his relatives told the Associated Press that they are "disturbed" by the verdict and will pray for his early return. U.S. officials said they want Gomes returned to the United States as soon as possible.

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