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U.S. official visited Pyongyang, but failed to free citizen held for illegal entry: State Dept.

All Headlines 05:16 August 17, 2010

By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 (Yonhap) -- A U.S. consular official and two doctors visited North Korea last week to see an American citizen held for illegal entry, but failed to win his release, the State Department said Monday.

Spokesman Philip Crowley was discussing Aijalon Gomes, 30, of Boston, who was sentenced in May to eight years in a labor and reeducation camp and fined about US$700,000 for illegal entry on Jan. 25.

"We did have a State Department team visit Pyongyang last week," Crowley said. "It was a four-person team: one consular official, two doctors and a translator. We requested permission to visit Mr. Gomes. That permission from the North Korean government was granted."

While the team was in Pyongyang on Aug. 9-11, "We requested permission to bring Mr. Gomes home," Crowley said. "Unfortunately, he remains in North Korea."

North Korea said last month that Gomes was hospitalized after an attempted suicide, and some reports said he was on a hunger strike.

The U.S. team visited Gomes "in a hospital," the spokesman said.

Crowley repeated calls for North Korea to release Gomes.

"We continue to talk to North Korea to obtain the release of Mr. Gomes, and we will continue to talk to North Korea about what we can do to get them to release him on humanitarian grounds," he said.

North Korea in June threatened to increase punishment for Gomes under a wartime law, citing what it called a U.S. campaign to condemn North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. North Korea denies responsibility, dismissing the outcome of the international probe that blamed a torpedo fired by a North Korean mini-submarine.

The U.N. Security Council condemned the attack that led to the sinking of the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors in the Yellow Sea in March, but did not directly blame North Korea due to China's opposition.

Reports said that North Korea has asked the U.S. to send a high-level envoy to discuss the release of Gomes, but Washington apparently has been reluctant due to the chilly ties after the Cheonan incident.

Washington and Seoul have demanded that Pyongyang apologize for the incident and show its commitment to denuclearization before returning to the six-party talks on ending the North's nuclear weapons programs.

In a show of force against North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. staged joint military drills last month and began another two-week exercise Monday.

Crowley denied that the U.S. team discussed any other issues.

"The basis of the trip was simply our ongoing concerns about Mr. Gomes's health and welfare while the team was in Pyongyang," he said. "We have had conversations directly with North Korea on this issue, and we will continue to have that direct conversation with North Korea as needed."

Another State Department official said, asking anonymity, that "The team did not bring another message to North Korea."

Gomes, who taught English in South Korea, is the fourth American held in the North since early last year.

He reportedly sympathized with another American, Robert Park, 28, who was released in February after crossing the Chinese border on Christmas Day to draw international attention to North Korea's poor human rights record.

Two American journalists were set free last August, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang. The journalists were on a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors when they were caught in March 2009.


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