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Washington and Pyongyang are likely headed for serious diplomatic talks after North Korea sentenced a US citizen to eight years of hard labor and fined him $700,000 for illegally entering the country.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes is the fourth US citizen to be arrested for illegally crossing the border into North Korea. Last June two television reporters were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, but released shortly thereafter when former President Bill Clinton visited the country. Over Christmas an American priest was arrested when he walked over the border singing hymns, reportedly protesting human rights conditions in North Korea. He was released 43 days later after he apologized.
Mr. Gomes reportedly crossed over the border on Jan. 25. He was sentenced during a trial on Tuesday. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, so officials from the Swedish embassy attended the trial on behalf of the US. Gomes, who was raised in Boston and became an English teacher in South Korea after graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, has spoken out strongly against North Korea’s human rights record and is reportedly very religious. Yonhap news agency reports that he was also charged with “hostility” against the communist state.
According to past precedent, Gomes will likely serve only a fraction of his prison term, but not before becoming a tool for talks on the contentious nuclear program or other issues. The Guardian reports that the central court decision is final, adding:
But Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea university, said Gomes would eventually be released as the north appears to want to use his case as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the US on its nuclear programme.
The Washington Post reports that given the domestic challenges facing North Korea right now, they may be more likely to engage in nuclear talks than they have in the past.
North Korea could be in a mood to talk, as there are widespread reports of starvation deaths inside the country due to a bad harvest and bungled currency reform that disrupted food markets. In addition, UN sanctions are believed to be squeezing the government, limiting its sales of arms and missiles.
The US has been working to encourage Kim Jong Il to reenter into the six-country talks that would bring about an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, reports The Times of London. So far Mr. Kim has shown little interest in reengaging in the talks, but Gomes may become a “political pawn” for North Korea as it decides whether to come back to the table.
Few people expect that Gomes will serve his entire sentence. With North Korea hoping to persuade Washington to sign a formal peace treaty and lift sanctions, the communist nation has little to gain by holding onto Gomes indefinitely, reports Agence France-Presse.
"The North will find little gain in holding him for a long time," Yang Moo-Jin, of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
"It is likely to release him in several months when the six-party talks resume."