(Photo: AP Photo / Winslow Townson)
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, the American who was held for seven months in North Korea, arrived home Friday after former President Jimmy Carter flew to the reclusive nation to secure his release.
Gomes arrived around 2 p.m. Friday at Boston’s Logan International Airport and was greeted by more than a dozen family members, who said the reunion was “a prayer being answered.”
In a written statement, the family thanked Carter and others involved in his release - including the State Department and Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang - and asked for privacy.
“This has been a long, dark and difficult period for Aijalon and our family,” the statement said. “For Aijalon, although returning home, the journey toward healing really just begins today.”
Since January, Gomes had been detained by the government of North Korea, which sentenced him in April to eight years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and for an unspecified "hostile act."
Before crossing over to North Korea, Gomes had worked as an English language teacher in a town north of Seoul. He had also participated in several demonstrations for the release of another American, Robert Park, who had entered North Korea illegally in December.
While Park’s motivation was clear – to demand the North show greater respect for human rights and to call on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to repent of his sins – it has been unclear what Gomes’ motives were.
The 31-year-old from Boston has, however, been described by friends as a devout Christian as Park had been.
Upon arrival Friday, neither Gomes nor Carter spoke with reporters, and it was unclear if or when either would share details of Gomes' detainment and release. According to the New York Times, Gomes quickly left the airport with his family and stayed out of the public eye for the rest of the day.
Following Gomes’ release, the U.S. State Department issued travel warning instructing U.S. citizens against trips to North Korea.
According to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Carter made an apology to Kim Yong Nam, the country's titular head of state, for Gomes' illegal entry into North Korea and “gave him the assurance that such case will never happen again."
KCNA also reported that Kim told Carter that North Korea wants to resume the six-party talks and work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Notably, the State Department has emphasized that “Carter’s trip was a private, humanitarian, and unofficial mission solely for the purpose of bringing Mr. Gomes home and reuniting him with his family.”
“The former President traveled at the invitation of the DPRK Government. The U.S. Government did not propose or arrange the trip,” reported State Department spokesman Philip Crowley in a statement Thursday.
Crowley did, however, say that the “U.S. Government concurred with former President Carter’s decision to accept the North Korean proposal” based on its assessment that Gomes’ health “was at serious risk if he did not receive immediate care in the United States.”
A team had been sent by the U.S. State Department to North Korea earlier this month to free Gomes but was not granted permission to do so.
As was the case for U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were sentenced to prison last year after illegally entering North Korea, North Korea had reportedly requested a visit by a high-profile U.S. figure to gain the release of Gomes.
Foreign Policy magazine, which first broke the news of Carter’s trip, reported the former president as the top pick among several possible candidates to help secure Gomes’ release. Others who were reportedly considered included Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.