MSNBC reported that Aijalon Gomes looked thin but happy as he emerged from a plane with former President Jimmy Carter last week. President Carter traveled to North Korea to escort Gomes home after North Korea agreed to release Gomes on humanitarian grounds if the former president would come to get him.
Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, was arrested earlier this year for entering North Korea on Jan. 25. Although the reasons why he entered North Korea are still unclear, Gomes was sentenced to eight years hard labor for his “crime.” After North Korean news reported that Gomes had tried to commit suicide, President Carter requested that the government “leniently forgive” and release Gomes.
Gomes is the fourth American to be arrested by North Korea for trespassing during the past year alone. Since we do not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, it is difficult for the United States government actively to participate in negotiating the release of Americans arrested for trespassing. President Carter was not acting on behalf of the United States government, although it does not seem to be as much of an issue as when former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to plead for the release of two American reporters arrested in March 2009 for trespassing. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was adamant that President Clinton’s trip to North Korea was a “private mission” and denied reports that Clinton carried a personal message from President Obama to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-II.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested, convicted and sentenced to 12 years hard labor for illegally crossing the border into North Korea. The U.S. State Department had been negotiating for the release of the women for some time before the North Korean government agreed to release the women as evidence of its “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.” The release came with two conditions — a visit by a high-profile emissary (President Clinton filled that requirement) and a formal apology (fulfilled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public apology on behalf of the women). Former President Clinton was treated as a head of state and met with Kim Jong-II during his stay in North Korea. Photographs of the men were taken to commemorate the historic visit and meeting.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson made similar trips to North Korea during the 1990s, while he was a congressional representative, to plead for the release of Americans detained or arrested by the North Korean government. In 1994, Gov. Richardson secured the release of an American pilot who had strayed into North Korean airspace. In 1996, Richardson again went to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of an American who was being held on charges of spying.
The recent events seem to mirror the past two decades of relations with North Korea regarding Americans who trespass into that country. High-ranking officials or emissaries are able to do far more to secure the release of these Americans by working directly with the North Korean government. This could be because the North Korean government wants to project a better image of itself without having to initiate diplomatic relations with the United States.
“American Imprisoned in N. Korea returns to U.S.” (MSNBC.com, 8/27/10)
Raddatz, Martha & Joohee Cho. “Former President Clinton Headed Home from North Korea with Journalists” (ABC News, 8/4/09)