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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

N. Korea Sentences US Man to 8 Years Hard Labor

Kurt Achin | Seoul 07 April 2010

North Korea says it has determined a U.S. citizen should do hard labor and pay a hefty fine for his illegal entry into the country earlier this year.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that "guilt was confirmed" in the trial of 30-year-old U.S. citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes. North Korea says he entered the country illegally on January 25.

The court sentenced Gomes to eight years of hard labor and ordered him to pay a fine of 70 million won - about $700,000 under North Korea's official exchange rate.

North Korea says Gomes "admitted all the facts" in his trial, which Pyongyang says it allowed Swedish envoys to witness "as an exception" to standard procedure. Sweden performs certain limited diplomatic functions on behalf of the United States, which does not have normal relations with Pyongyang.

Han Myung-sop is a South Korean lawyer with expertise in the North's legal system. He says the large fine is a break with precedent.

He says North Korean law does not provide for any monetary punishments whatsoever. Such a concept, he says, is inconsistent with the North's socialist system. Therefore, says Han, the fine imposed on Gomes can only be viewed as a ransom.

Han says the United States is in a quandary now, especially as it tries to enforce international economic sanctions related to North Korea's nuclear program. Also, Han says if Washington pays the fine, this kind of situation is likely to repeat itself in the future.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea exactly one month after the Christmas Day entry of Robert Park. Both men are described by their friends as passionate Christian activists, and it is believed Park's actions inspired Gomes.

Ben Rogers is East Asia team leader for the activist group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He says he respects the courage of such drastic actions, but that his organization cannot condone them.

"The North Korean regime has shown itself to be capable of the utmost brutality … and there's a real risk that people, even if they think they have very great courage and strength, may end up giving in to their torturers and conveying information that they might not otherwise wish to convey," said Rogers.

North Korea freed Robert Park in February, but he has not spoken publicly about his experience. Friends say he faced torture and sexual abuse in the North, and has spent time since his ordeal in a mental health facility.

South Korean experts on the North say it is unlikely Gomes will actually enter a labor camp. Instead, they say Pyongyang will probably seek to release Gomes in a way that maximizes its leverage in nuclear arms talks expected to resume soon. The United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan are trying to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

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