A team sent by the U.S. State Department to visit North Korea last week tried to free an American jailed there but was not granted permission to do so, department spokesman P.J. Crowley reported Monday.
The four-person team – consisting of one consular official, two doctors, and a translator – had reportedly gone to Pyongyang out of the department’s ongoing concerns for the health and welfare of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was arrested on Jan. 25 after crossing into North Korea from China.
“While the team was in Pyongyang, we again requested, as have Swedish officials on our behalf… permission to bring Mr. Gomes home,” Crowley told reporters during Monday’s press briefing. “Unfortunately, he remains in North Korea.”
It has been nearly seven months since Gomes was detained and four months since he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined 70 million North Korean won, or about $700,000, for “hostile acts” against the country.
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 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 has been unclear what Gomes’ motives were.
The 30-year-old from Boston has, however, been described by friends as a devout Christian.
In his remarks Monday, Crowley said the State Department has encouraged North Korea to release Gomes on humanitarian grounds.
“[A]nd we will continue to have that direct conversation with North Korea as needed,” he added.
According to the department spokesman, the four-person team was in Pyongyang from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11. They returned to the United States on Aug. 12 after visiting Gomes in a hospital, where he's been since his alleged suicide attempt last month.