Boston man set free in N. Korea
Carter intervenes to secure his release; former prisoner to return home today
A Boston man being held in North Korea since January for crossing into that country illegally was freed yesterday at the behest of former President Jimmy Carter, and is expected to arrive back in Boston today.
“I thanked God first,’’ said Jacqueline McCarthy of Mattapan, the mother of 31-year-old Aijalon Mahli Gomes, in a phone interview late last night when asked how she reacted to the news of her son’s freedom.
The Carter Center, the former president’s Atlanta-based foundation, said in a statement that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il released Gomes at Carter’s request on humanitarian grounds. It was not known if Carter met with Kim on his just-concluded trip to Pyongyang, or whether a meeting was made impossible by the North Korean leader’s own trip to China.
The Carter Center said Gomes would arrive at Logan International Airport early this afternoon.
Gomes had moved to South Korea in his late 20s to teach English. He was arrested on Jan. 25 for crossing the border into North Korea and sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000, North Korean state media said at the time.
State media later reported that Gomes had attempted suicide while in custody.
His friends told the Globe he was active in an evangelical church in South Korea and was very upset when a friend, Korean-American Robert Park, was arrested after crossing into North Korea on Dec. 25 to protest human rights abuses there.
Gomes spoke with his family by telephone in late April, the Globe reported at the time, citing state media.
A family spokeswoman, Thaleia Schlesinger, said then that Gomes’s mother was happy to hear his voice. Schlesinger said last night that the family was excited and relieved by the news that he would be coming home.
“They really are thrilled and very grateful to President Carter,’’ she said.
The US State Department also welcomed the news in a statement last night, noting that Carter was not representing the federal government, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea.
“We appreciate former President Carter’s humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea’s decision to grant Mr. Gomes special amnesty and allow him to return to the United States,’’ the State Department said. “We also want to express our gratitude to the Swedish government for their tireless consular services and efforts on the US government’s behalf in their role as our protecting power in North Korea.’’
Carter traveled to North Korea at the invitation of that country, according to the statement.
“[As] the case of Mr. Gomes illustrates, travel to North Korea is not routine or risk-free,’’ the State Department said. “We are issuing a travel warning for American citizens, warning US citizens against travel to North Korea.’’
Victor Cha, National Security Council director for Asian affairs under President George W. Bush and now a professor at Georgetown University, said Carter’s mission was “to get the American out, so in that sense, it was a successful humanitarian mission.’’
The reclusive and erratic North Korean regime is known for kidnapping foreigners and for handing down harsh sentences to people who try to cross in and out of its border without permission, sometimes using them as pawns to gain international attention.
Last year, former President Bill Clinton gained the release of two American journalists who were accused of crossing illegally into the country.
“We are running out of ex-presidents,’’ Cha said.
He said Gomes was probably motivated to try to enter the country because of human rights abuses, and therefore US officials were especially concerned for his welfare.
“They gave him a very harsh sentence, eight years in prison,’’ Cha said. “There were concerns about his well-being, an American thrown into a prison in the worst human-rights-violating country of the world. I think we had to pay whatever price we needed to get this American out.’’
Cha said North Korea wanted a high-profile visitor to negotiate for Gomes’s release.
“I don’t think they asked him for money or anything else,’’ he said. “They were willing to let this guy out of the country, but they wanted a high-level visit. Carter was the one who told the administration that he could get him out. I don’t know on what basis he knew.’’
The State Department and the Carter Center did not comment on any possible motives that North Korea may have had during negotiations.
Gomes’s grandmother, Annie Sarrow of Mattapan, told a Globe reporter earlier this week that Gomes was special.
“He’s a good kid, good person, who loves people,’’ she said.
David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com.