By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (Worthy News)-- Rights investigators expressed concerns Monday, July 26, about the plight of a jailed American Christian in North Korea, while U.S.and South Korean warships practiced anti-submarine maneuvers off the Korean peninsula to warn Pyongyang against aggression.
Britain-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said it joined a “growing international campaign” for the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, who entered North Korea illegally January 25 this year, crossing the border from China exactly one month after activist Robert Park, a Korean-American, entered the country.
“North Korean defectors and human rights campaigners, including Free the NK Gulag, Global Justice Prayer Network, Justice for North Korea and Korea Liberty and Union, said held a press conference and demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, July 26, calling for Gomes’ release,” CSW said.
Gomes, who is from Boston, Massachusetts, was believed to have gone to North Korea to protest what CSW described as “grave violations of human rights perpetrated by the regime.”
He regularly attended prayer meetings and rallies for North Korean human rights in the United States and taught English at Choong-eui middle school in the South Korean city of Pocheon from 2008-2009 CSW said, adding that his colleagues called him “a devout Christian”.
Gomes was detained by North Korean authorities, and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $700,000 for illegal entry and unspecified “hostile acts”.
His arrest is the third time North Koreans have detained U.S. citizens within the past year and follows the detention of Robert Park and the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, all of whom were released after several months in North Korean custody.
It was not immediately clear what impact Monday's military maneuvers in the Sea of Japan, the largest joint military exercise by the United States and South Korea in years, would have on the American's well-being.
Monday's drill was a response to the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, that killed 46 sailors in March. Critics have expressed doubts that impoverished North Korea would have been able to hit the Cheonan and suggested human error or a technical fault.
However U.S. and South Korean officials involved in the military drills, say an investigation has concluded that North Korean forces torpedoed the ship.
North Korea says the investigation results were fabricated and has accused the United States of attempting to punish it and threatened with a “sacred war” that could involve nuclear weapons. "They will face a costly consequence if they stick to the criminal activities ravaging peace and security on the Korean peninsula," North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in commentary carried Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
No increased North Korean military activity were observed Monday, July 26, American and South Korean military officials said.
Amid the stand-off, CSW’s National Director Stuart Windsor said his organization is “gravely concerned about the well-being” of Gomes. He said CSW has urged North Korean authorities to provide information “as to his whereabouts and well-being without delay” and to release the American “immediately.”
Besides Gomes, thousands of other Christians are believed to be detained in North Korea, where observers say there is no religious freedom as all citizens are forced to worship current leader Kim Jong-il and his deceased father Kim Il-sung.
“We are deeply concerned about the plight of thousands of other prisoners in North Korea’s brutal system of prison camps, and call on the North Korean regime to open up its gulag to access to international human rights monitors and aid agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the new UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea,” CSW's Windsor said.
Complicating international rights efforts is the fact that the peninsula technically remains at state of war because an armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War was never replaced with a peace treaty. Tuesday marks the 57th anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire.