Every Nation Church of Korea
American Aijalon Gomes is serving eight years in a North Korean prison.
In January, American Aijalon Gomes walked into North Korea from China. Several months later, a court there sentenced Gomes to eight years in a labor camp. A few weeks ago, the North's official state media reported that the 31-year-old from Boston had tried to commit suicide.
For two years, Gomes taught English at Chungui Middle School, about an hour-and-a-half from the South Korean capital, Seoul.
Former student Lee Yee He recalls that Gomes often rode his bike to school, and smelled of red ginseng candy.
"It's a kind of sweet smell," Lee says.
The teenager points to a place across the playground where Gomes liked to eat lunch by himself. Most teachers in South Korea eat meals together.
The student says in the classroom, there was one subject in particular that he cared about intensely.
"He showed us the relationship between South Korea and North Korea, and how they were different," Lee says.
She says her teacher was serious but also funny.
"I just want people to know that he was very nice and a very fun person," Lee adds.
Gomes also likes to sing in Korean. Lee says one of his favorite songs is "You Were Born to Be Loved," performed by the South Korean Christian band Love.
"I don't know why exactly he did it [entered North Korea] but he just — I'm sure he felt that God was saying to him good can come out of this," says English teacher Marius van Broekhuizen, who is from South Africa.
Van Broekhuizen says he talked and prayed with Gomes nearly every week for more than a year.
"Aijalon's focus moved away from just having a good time to meaning something to the people around him — from first living for his own pleasure toward loving people and being sacrificial and that," van Broekhuizen says. "We did have a good time together, definitely. But it was more a deep relationship, than just a fun relationship, and I learned a lot from him."
Courtesy of Ji Chul-ho
Aijalon Gomes with Ji Chul-ho, a North Korean refugee.
Van Broekhuizen speculates that his friend went to North Korea to find a purpose in his life.
"As an outsider, it seems incredibly stupid what he did, but Aijalon stopped living for himself awhile ago," van Broekhuizen says. "If you know him, you would understand that everything that he did was to benefit the people around him. And I'm sure he was convinced that what he did could in a way help the people of North Korea to be free again."
Both van Broekhuizen and Gomes attended the Every Nation Church of Korea in Seoul. American Robert Park, who attended the same church, had walked into North Korea one month before Gomes did. North Korea detained Park for six weeks but then released him.
"I don't know why it happened, but, it just, amazingly, just two members from our church going to North Korea," says Simon Suh, pastor of Every Nation Church. "I just want people to know that from my message, or our church orientation, that we don't encourage people to go to North Korea."
Pastor Suh says Gomes and Park may have been drawn to the North because of what he described as passionate prayers by defectors now living in the South, many of whom attend their small church.
"There are several occasions that we'd been really praying for the family members who came from North Korea, and hiding in our shelter in China," Suh says. "We've been specifically praying for those people, and I believe that Aijalon was very much moved about those events."
When Pastor Suh heard news that Gomes had attempted suicide in a North Korean jail, he felt compelled to do something.
"I felt like I need to get really involved and try to help him," Suh said.
When asked why he feels a sense of responsibility, the pastor answered, "Aijalon and I had several counseling sessions where he really wants to pray and find out God's will. A lot of times he really didn't know whether he needs to stay in Korea or go back to the states. So he said, 'Pastor Simon, that's just one of the prayers that I'm constantly praying: What is next in my life?' "
Joo Gyung-bae, a North Korean refugee who is also a member of the congregation, remembers sharing his life's struggles with Gomes during prayer meetings. He says Gomes didn't talk much, but you could see he cared more deeply than others, especially about the people of North Korea and the extreme hardships they face.
"He loved us more than anyone," Joo says. "His heart really ached for us, unconditionally — that's how he felt when he left us, with no hope for any reward. I trust in Mr. Gomes because I believe that Jesus sent him, and that he carried Jesus' love with him."
But professor Park Young Whan of Seoul Theological University says people should remember that there are officially sanctioned churches that exist to support Kim Jong-il's regime. This kind of border-crossing, he says, is seen as a challenge to the regime and may have hurt Christian groups with missions in North Korea.
"We believe and understand that Mr. Gomes entered North Korea with God's plan and goal in mind," Park says. "As for his way of going about it, we regret that he did not act more wisely, that he did not refrain from provoking North Korea."
Earlier this month, North Korea allowed a State Department team to visit Pyongyang. The U.S. officials, including a doctor, saw Gomes at a hospital but he remains in North Korea.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley says the Obama administration is worried about Gomes and his health, and would like to see him released on humanitarian grounds.
"For whatever reason he went to North Korea, he doesn't pose a security threat," Crowley said. "We think on that basis he should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible."
Thalia Schlesinger, a spokeswoman for Gomes' family, says they are grateful to the North Korean government for the health care being provided to Aijalon. She says the family just wants to bring him home.
Kyuhee Shim, Min Sun Lee and Hyerim Seo contributed to this report.