North Korea on Thursday threatened to impose harsher punishment on an imprisoned American citizen who had illegally entered the country earlier this year.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, whom friends describe as a devout Christian, is facing possible "wartime law" because of the United States' "campaign" to put international pressure on North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean warship, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
"The DPRK has already solemnly declared that it would consider the prevailing situation as a war phase and handle all relevant issues according to a wartime law," stated KCNA. "An institution concerned is now examining the issue of what additional measure it will take against American Gomes in line with a wartime law."
South Korea declared that the North was responsible for the March sinking of its 1,200-ton Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died. The South then asked the U.N. Security Council to take action against Pyongyang. Washington backed South Korea, sparking the angry North to accuse the U.S. of "persistently antagonizing" the country over the Cheonan case, according to KCNA.
North Korea, in the official statement Thursday, said the U.S. government has requested that it release Gomes for humanitarian reasons. However, the North said such a thing could "never happen" under the current situation between the two countries.
"If the U.S. persists in its hostile approach toward the DPRK, the latter will naturally be compelled to consider the issue of applying a wartime law to him," it threatened.
Gomes was captured after crossing into North Korea from China on Jan. 25. He was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined 70 million North Korean won, or about $700,000, for "hostile acts" against the country.
Gomes had previously worked as an English language teacher in a town north of Seoul before crossing over to North Korea. He had participated in several demonstrations for the release of another American Christian, 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 is still unclear what Gomes' motives were.
Last year, North Korea also detained American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for five months after they crossed the border. They were released last August after former President Bill Clinton personally arrived to escort them back to the United States. Park was also released in February.
There are no diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea.