His name is Aijalon Mahli Gomes, he’s 30 years old, he’s from Boston, and at least until a year or so ago, he was in South Korea teaching English, the modus vivendi for thousands of young and not-so-young foreigners sojourning there.
Now the question is whether Mr. Gomes, like Robert Park, the Christian missionary who entered North Korea on Christmas Eve, was on an evangelical mission – or as a sympathizer with the regime of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il.
Colleagues at the school where he taught in Pocheon, a small city northeast of Seoul, have described him as “evangelical,” so much so that he went into Seoul regularly for services at a church there.
Teachers at the school where he taught have described him variously as “calm,” “quiet,” “polite,” even “mellow,” and no one recalled the fervent religious zeal that motivated Mr. Park to go to the North with a plea for Mr. Kim to shut down the gulag in which thousands of political prisoners are held and free them all.
Still, Gomes’s mission may have been evangelical – though not necessarily critical of the regime. “He sounds like he's another slightly unhinged Christian like Robert Park,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary fellow at Leeds University and a longtime analyst of the Korean scene. Gomes’s given names, Aijalon Mahli, come from a biblical name and a locale.
After North Korea announced Monday that he had been indicted “as his crime has been confirmed,” however, there was concern that he might be subjected to the same pressures that Park evidently endured.
Park, before he was freed after being held for 43 days, issued a statement recanting all his criticism of the regime. He said he had been “misled” but has refrained from talking since his release about what changed his mind.
Hesitation on Gomes's treatment
North Korean authorities appeared to have hesitated about just how to deal with Gomes. Mr. Foster-Carter predicts “he'll be released ere long,” but on what conditions remains totally unclear.
North Korea several weeks ago announced the detention of an American who had “illegally entered” the country, but Gomes’s name was not known until Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency carried a one-paragraph report on his indictment. It was not until last week that a diplomat from the Swedish Embassy, which handles US affairs in Pyongyang, was able to visit him, said the State Department.
Gomes is believed to have been living in Uijongbu, a large town north of Seoul. It’s still not known, however, when he left South Korea or how he entered the North – presumably from the Chinese side across the Yalu River border in the west or the Tumen River on the east.
Jimmy Carter – playing a role?
The presence of Jimmy Carter in Seoul on the same day as the KCNA announcement of Gomes’s indictment aroused speculation that Mr. Carter might go to Pyongyang to bring Mr. Gomes home.
Might Kim Jong-il dream of luring another former US president to Pyongyang? Bill Clinton flew there last August to pick up Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the Internet TV journalists who were held there for 140 days after North Korean soldiers seized them on the Tumen River border with China.
Mr. Carter, who flew to Pyongyang in June 1994 to meet Kim Jong-il’s father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, shortly before he died, called in Seoul for talks with North Korea, warning of the danger of a “catastrophic war.” The US and South Korea must take the initiative, he said, though “no one can predict the final answers from Pyongyang.”
But the resolution of the Gomes case “shouldn't need anyone as senior as Carter to go in,” said Foster-Carter. At the same time, he said, the case “just messes up and distracts from the real issue, which is if and when North Korea will get back to the six-party talks” on its nuclear weapons program.”