American Held in N. Korea Seen as Man of Conviction

A Jan. 12, 2010, file photo shows American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, during a rally denouncing North Korean's human rights conditions at the Imjingak Pavilion, near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas.

A Jan. 12, 2010, file photo shows American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, during a rally denouncing North Korean's human rights conditions at the Imjingak Pavilion, near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas.  (AP)

BOSTON -- An American imprisoned in North Korea for illegally crossing the border has a gentle spirit, but is also person of conviction willing to be bold about what he believes, friends and acquaintances said.

Aijalon Gomes had been teaching English in South Korea when he was imprisoned in January for entering North Korea from China, U.S. officials said. This week, former president Jimmy Carter traveled to the isolated nation to try to win Gomes' release, and end the Boston's man harrowing and unlikely trip from the inner city to a North Korean jail.

"'He ran deep,' I think, would be the phrase that other people might use," said Erik Woodbury, who attended college with Gomes. "I was surprised that he ended up in North Korea, but I wasn't surprised that there was something he was passionate about."

It's unclear what prompted Gomes to enter the repressive nation. He may have been emulating fellow Christian Robert Park, who was detained after he crossed into North Korea a month earlier to highlight its human rights record, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Park was expelled a few weeks later.

Shortly before he left for North Korea, Gomes was photographed in Seoul, South Korea, protesting Park's plight.

Gomes was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegally entering the country. Gomes' relatives have declined to say much about him or his situation, though they pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds after North Korea's state-run media reported last month that he'd attempted suicide.

The family stayed quiet when asked for personal reflections about Gomes this week.

"They would prefer not to comment," said family spokeswoman Thaleia Schlesinger.

Gomes grew up in an apartment in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, long a haven for immigrants and now heavily populated by African-Americans and people from Caribbean nations. In high school, he was featured in a local television documentary about a jobs program that equipped at-risk youth for the workplace. At the time, he was working an after school job at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

He graduated high school in 1997 and headed to Bowdoin College, a small school in Maine.

Nate Vinton, a sportswriter in New York City, took classes with Gomes, including creative writing, and remembered him as polite, earnest and with a touch of shyness that quickly vanished during conversation. Vinton also saw hints of Gomes' religious conviction.

"He talked admiringly of the Bible as a piece of literature in a class that we took together, which was unusual at that school in that place and time," Vinton said. "That stood out, for sure."

Gomes was an enthusiastic and good-humored member of Bowdoin's student-run theater group and worked with Woodbury, now a college professor in California, on major roles in "Pippin" and bit parts in "Cabaret."

Bowdoin graduate Zach Tabacco said he would occasionally hang out with Gomes, whom he met through friends.

"He was a really sweet and positive guy," Tabacco said. "He wasn't wild by any means, but he definitely had a stronger personality. ... I can believe that if he thought something was right, he's going to do what he can to defend that and to support that."

Several years after college, Gomes moved to South Korea to teach English. Friend and colleague Marshalette Wise said Gomes was unfailingly professional, even outside work, where she saw him wear only slacks, dress shirts and bow ties. She said he was always friendly, helping new teachers become acclimated and assisting her in a move to a new job 90 minutes away.

This week, the first sign of a breakthrough since Gomes' imprisonment came with word that North Korea had agreed to release Gomes to Carter if the former president visited the capital city of Pyongyang. Carter arrived Wednesday, but by Thursday there was no sign that Gomes had been freed and leader Kim Jong Il had left for China.

As word of his possible release spread this week, members of a Facebook group called "Save Aijalon Gomes!" expressed relief and optimism that his ordeal would soon end.

"He is an excellent human being and a joy to know," group member Karen Hinds said in a post Tuesday. "God has kept him."