Sen. Kerry works to free U.S. citizen imprisoned in North Korea

Aides to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have been in talks with North Korean officials in an effort to secure the release of an American man detained in Pyongyang and sentenced this week to eight years of hard labor.


Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, was convicted in a trial on Tuesday for illegally entering North Korea and another, unspecified, hostile act, the nation’s state-run news agency reported this week. He was also fined an equivalent of $700,000.

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Gomes, a Boston native who was teaching English in South Korea, was detained on January 25 after crossing over into North Korea.

Kerry is Gomes’s senior senator in Massachusetts as well as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has taken the lead in working with the State Department to win Gomes’ release, officials said.

Members of Kerry’s staff have been “in direct contact with North Korean officials” in New York, spokesman Frederick Jones said. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the Pyongyang regime, talks are conducted using Swedish diplomats as intermediaries.

Gomes is the fourth American in just over a year to be detained in North Korea. The plight of two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, gained worldwide attention last year after former President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and secure the release of the women.

Officials said they were unaware of any discussions to send a prominent emissary to bring Gomes home. Jones, the Kerry spokesman, noted that North Korea’s handling of Gomes was similar to its handling of Lee and Ling.

Swedish officials were present at Gomes’s trial to represent U.S. interests, the State Department has said. The State Department is calling for Gomes to be granted amnesty and immediate release, spokesman Noel Clay said. The U.S. is also demanding that Swedish officials be allowed access to Gomes. The Swedish have met with Gomes four times since his arrest, but they have not been granted access since March 17. 

Kerry’s office “has been in close contact with both the family of Mr. Gomes and with the State Department as they work to secure his release,” Jones said.

The senator released a statement on Wednesday calling the situation “a mother’s worst nightmare.”

“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,” Kerry said.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), Gomes’s congressman, said he was “greatly concerned” about Gomes and was also working with Kerry and the State Department to bring him home.

A spokeswoman for Gomes’s family in Boston, Thaleia Schlesinger, said Friday that the family was “clearly upset and hoping for his return.” She referred questions about efforts to win his release to the State Department.