The State Department is considering sending a high-level public figure to North Korea to facilitate the release of a Boston man who is being held there and may be in severely poor health, according to multiple sources close to the discussions.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old man from Boston, was sentenced to 8 years in prison in April, about three months after he was arrested crossing into North Korea via China. In July, North Korea's official media organ reported that Gomes had tried to commit suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department secretly sent a four-man team to Pyongyang to visit Gomes, but was unable to secure his release.
It is not clear why Gomes, who had been working in South Korea as an English teacher, chose to cross into North Korea, but he was known to be a supporter of Robert Park, a Christian missionary who deliberately entered the isolated, repressive country in January to "proclaim Christ's love and forgiveness" to Kim Jong Il and was later released.
The North Koreans have been trying to use Gomes as a bargaining chip and conflate his detention with other policy issues, such as their frustration over being accused of sinking the South Korean ship the Cheonan. In June, they threatened to apply "wartime law" to the Gomes case if America's "hostile" approach to North Korea continued, which could mean a life sentence for the young man.
The North Korean regime has communicated that it wants a prominent American official to visit Pyongyang to secure Gomes's release, similar to the August 2009 trip by former President Bill Clinton, who made a dramatic visit to Pyongyang to bring home Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who received a "special pardon" from the Dear Leader.
The State Department is resisting sending a U.S. government representative, one source outside the department said, because the administration doesn't want to allow North Korea to conflate the Gomes case with the outstanding policy issues between Washington and Pyonyang, which include the administration's refusal to resume multilateral or bilateral talks until the regime reaffirms its commitment to denuclearization, a promise made toward the end of the Bush administration.
The most obvious choice for the trip is Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, who is not only a prominent diplomatic figure but has also been intimately involved in the Gomes case since it began. In fact, it was Kerry who first contacted the State Department on behalf of Gomes's mother and facilitated the identification of Gomes after North Korea announced it had captured an American.
"No decision has been made on whether Senator Kerry would go to the DPRK [North Korea], but any such move would be done in close consultation with the State Department and the White House," said Frederick Jones, communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who added that Kerry has offered to do whatever he can to assist in securing the release of Gomes.
The State Department also at one point considered New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to go on the trip, one source close to the discussions said. Richardson has had success rescuing American imprisoned abroad and has also traveled to North Korea in the past. We're hearing that Jimmy Carter is also on the list.
Due to the sensitivity of the issue and the fluid nature of the discussions, administration officials have been extremely tightlipped. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment, and Richardson's staff did not respond to requests.
But behind the scenes, the State Department, with support from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, has been making strenuous efforts to secure Gomes's release since the moment he was arrested. (The Swedes represent American interests in North Korea due a lack of formal diplomatic relations.)
The discussions about Gomes are some of the only direct interactions the administration has had with the North Koreans since talks broke down. North Korea declared the talks dead in April, 2009 following two years of stagnation and then expelled nuclear inspectors and detonated their second nuclear device. Track 2 discussions last October failed to precipitate a breakthrough.
"We are in direct contact with North Korea regarding Mr. Gomes. We are worried about his health and welfare," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. "We just had a team visit with him and we want to see him returned to the United States as soon as possible. We will continue to urge North Korea to release Mr. Gomes on humanitarian grounds."
Meanwhile, Gomes is said to be in poor health and poor spirits. For Kerry, this issue is both international and local as he tries to aid his constituent and also facilitate a positive interaction with one of the world's most insulated and brutal regimes.
"This is a mother's worst nightmare and a horrific situation," Kerry said the day Gomes was sentenced. "This young man belongs in Massachusetts with his family, and I join with them in expressing my hope that North Korea will do the right thing and send him home. I will do all I can, in concert with our government and Aijalon's family, to see him released safely."
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