Long-Term Detention Of Boston Man Not In North Korea's Interest, Says Expert

Download Audio

Sen. John Kerry is working with the U.S. State Department on behalf of a Boston man detained in North Korea.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, originally from Mattapan, is now in a North Korean prison. On Tuesday, a court in Pyongyang found him guilty of entering the country illegally and taking part in unspecified "hostile acts."

The 30-year-old English language teacher was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000. Sen. Kerry is calling for his release.

Gomes is the fourth American detained for illegal entry into North Korea over the past year.

North Korea expert Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, joined WBUR to provide some insight into the diplomatic moves involved in trying to resolving such cases.

Lee explained that the Swedish Embassy is serving as the intermediary for negotiations between the United States and North Korea. It's likely, Lee said, that those talks could progress in Gomes' favor.

"It doesn't really serve North Korea's long-term national interests to continue to hold on to a U.S. citizen, a civilian," Lee said.

Lee suggested that the harshness of Gomes' sentence indicates that the government views it not as a final punishment, but a point from which to negotiate.

"Mr. Gomes did violate North Korean laws, but I don't think that kind of action merits eight years of hard penal labor and such a hefty fine," Lee said.

Lee said Gomes may be facing harsh treatment in prison because of his status as a Christian missionary. "The North Korean state is doggedly determined to persecute Christians and North Korean citizens who come into contact with missionaries."

Gomes has been imprisoned for almost three months. Lee said North Korea has historically released American prisoners in less than six months.

This program aired on April 9, 2010.

Headshot of Bob Oakes

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



More from WBUR

Listen Live