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American sentenced to hard labor
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SEOUL (AP) — North Korea has sentenced an American teacher to eight years of hard labor and ordered him to pay a $700,000 fine after he crossed illegally into the country — the fourth U.S. citizen to be detained by the isolated regime since last year.
Gomes, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, had been teaching English in South Korea, and no details have emerged about why he went to the North. However, Jo Sung-rae, a Seoul-based activist, said Gomes may have been inspired by his acquaintance with an American missionary who made a similar trip to the North in December to protest the country’s human rights record.
“An examination was made of the hostile act committed against the Korean nation and the trespassing on the border of [North Korea] against which an indictment was brought in and his guilt was confirmed,” it said.
Verdicts issued by the Central Court — North Korea’s highest — are final and cannot be appealed, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul.
But Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Korea University, said Gomes would almost certainly be released as the North appears to want to use his case as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S. on its nuclear program.
“Continuing to hold him in custody is also a burden for North Korea,” as it will only galvanize criticism of its human rights record, Mr. Yoo said.
Three other Americans have crossed into the North since March 2009, but all were freed after diplomatic negotiations, including a visit by former President Bill Clinton.
The North is under international pressure to go back to stalled nuclear disarmament talks it quit last year, and it could use Gomes as leverage in negotiations about its return. But the isolated, impoverished regime also craves international recognition, especially from the United States. Mr. Clinton’s visit was thought to be a diplomatic victory for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at a time when the two countries were locked in a tense standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Last summer, Gomes met missionary Robert Park — who crossed into the North on Christmas Day — and later participated in two Seoul rallies calling for Mr. Park’s freedom, Jo Sung-rae, the activist who organized the protests, said Wednesday.
Representatives of the Swedish Embassy in North Korea, which looks after U.S. interests in the country, witnessed Gomes‘ trial, the KCNA report said. A person who answered the telephone of the first secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang referred queries to the U.S. State Department.
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