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.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes of Boston acknowledged his wrongdoing during a trial at the Central Court on Tuesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch Wednesday.

The North said last month it arrested Gomes, 30, on Jan. 25 for trespassing after he crossed into the country from China.

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.

The KCNA report said the court sentenced Gomes to eight years of “hard labor” and a fine of 70 million won. North Korea’s official exchange rate is 100 won to the dollar.

“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.

Activists and colleagues in South Korea describe Gomes as a quiet and devout Christian who was serious about his work teaching English.

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.

Gomes was weeping, and he looked so sincere when he asked me if I knew anything about Robert Park’s status in North Korea,” Mr. Jo said.

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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