U.S. in Direct Contact with North Korea on Gomes

The U.S. has been in direct contact with North Korean representatives to try and bring about the release of detained U.S. citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was convicted of illegally entering North Korea earlier this year.

The news was revealed by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley in Monday’s press briefing.

“We have communicated directly with North Korean officials about Mr. Gomes’ case,” Crowley told assembled journalists, adding, “We’d like to see him released on humanitarian grounds. And we continue to press his case, as do the Swedish authorities on our behalf.”

The U.S. lacks an embassy in Pyongyang, and generally relies on the Swedish embassy, which is its protecting power in the country. It is Sweden that has been in regular contact with North Korea about Gomes, who was sentenced to eight years in early April; it was Swedish officials who attended his trial in Pyongyang, and Swedish officials who visited him after an apparent suicide attempt early last month.

However, in spite of the official U.S.-North Korea contacts, Washington is as yet not considering sending a high level envoy to North Korea to secure Gomes’ release, Crowley added.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether or not Gomes has gone on hunger strike, as one British politician claimed late last month.

Responding to a question in a British House of Lords debate on July 28th, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Foreign Affairs Spokesman Lord Howell said, “On the question of Mr Aijalon Mahli Gomes and his early release from prison, he is currently on hunger strike. We are aware of his case and are monitoring it closely. However, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang is the consular protecting power for US nationals in North Korea and is handling the case.”

However, Philip Crowley refused to comment on the hunger strike claim in yesterday’s briefing, citing Privacy Act considerations, but did express thanks that the detention of an American citizen should be highlighted as a cause of concern in a third country.