North Korea says imprisoned American allowed to speak with family by phone

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — An American imprisoned in North Korea was allowed to speak to his mother by telephone, but Pyongyang's state media and his family provided few details and no clues whether he would be released.

North Korea's highest court sentenced Aijalon Mahli Gomes to eight years of hard labor and fined him $700,000 on April 6 for entering the country illegally and for an unspecified "hostile act."

Gomes, from Boston, was the fourth American detained by North Korea for illegal entry in less than a year. He had been teaching English in South Korea before being arrested in the North on Jan. 25.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday that Gomes spoke with family the same day. The call was allowed after he asked "for a phone contact with his family for his health and other reasons," the report said.

The brief dispatch from North Korea's capital Pyongyang provided no further details on the call.

Thaleia Schlesinger, a spokeswoman in Boston for Gomes' family, confirmed Friday that Gomes spoke with his mother on the phone from North Korea. "She was very grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him and hear his voice," said Schlesinger. "She was extremely happy and grateful to the North Korean government for allowing him to call home."

Schlesinger declined to discuss what the two discussed or give details on Gomes' condition.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called on North Korea to free Gomes. "It is a gesture," he said of the phone call. "But what we want is to see him released on humanitarian grounds."

Gomes remains in prison amid increasing uncertainty on the Korean peninsula.

Tensions between North and South are running high amid a dispute over joint economic projects and the mysterious March sinking of a South Korean warship near their western sea border in which 46 southern sailors died.

Meanwhile, international negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons remain stalled. The United States is a participant in those talks.

KCNA also said Gomes had contact in prison with a Swedish Embassy official to whom he handed a "written petition." The report said that happened before the phone call but wasn't specific.

The U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, and Sweden handles Washington's interests in the North.

"We have continuous contacts with the detained American citizen on behalf of the U.S.," Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Camilla Akesson Lindblom said in Stockholm. "Right now we cannot get into any more details."

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were held for five months before North Korea released them last August, and activist Robert Park was expelled some 40 days after crossing into North Korea last Christmas.

Gomes' motivation for entering North Korea remains unclear, though he attended rallies in Seoul in support of Park, a fellow Christian who deliberately crossed the North's border to call attention to the nation's human rights record, which has been criticized by the United Nations and U.S. as dismal.

Park was released in February without charge after the regime said he showed "sincere repentance of his wrong doings."

Ling and Lee, who work for former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts" after their arrest in March 2009 near the Chinese border.

They were freed in August after former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate their release. Clinton met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the visit.

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Associated Press writers Russell Contreras in Boston, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.