RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to hear a story now about a young American teacher being held in North Korea. His reasons for going there are mysterious, and his case has not gotten a lot of publicity. The basics are these: In January, 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes walked into North Korea from China and was soon arrested. A North Korean court has sentenced Gomes to eight years in a labor camp.
A few weeks ago, the country's official state media reported that he attempted suicide, but that he survived. From Seoul, South Korea, Doualy Xaykaothao has this report on the former English teacher from Boston and what may have motivated him.
DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: For two years, Aijalon Gomes taught English in South Korea. At Chungui Middle School, about an hour and half from the South Korean capital, a former student, Lee Yee He, recalls that Gomes often rode his bike to school and smelled of red ginseng candy.
Ms. LEE YEE HE: (Foreign language spoken)
XAYKAOTHAO: It's a kind of sweet smell, she 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. She says in the classroom, there was one subject in particular that he cared about intensely.
Ms. LEE: (Through translator) He showed us the relationship between South Korea and North Korea and how they were different.
XAYKAOTHAO: Lee says her teacher was serious, but also funny.
Ms. LEE: (Through translator) I just want people to know that he was very nice, and a very fun person.
XAYKAOTHAO: He also likes to sing in Korean. Lee says one of his favorite songs goes like this.
Ms. LEE: (Singing in foreign language)
(Soundbite of song, "You Were Born to Be Loved")
LOVE (Pop Group): (Singing in foreign language)
XAYKAOTHAO: It's a popular song called "You Were Born to Be Loved" performed by a South Korean Christian band called Love.
(Soundbite of song, "You Were Born to Be Loved")
LOVE: (Singing in foreign language)
Mr. MARIUS VAN BROEKHUIZEN (English Teacher): I don't know why exactly he did it, but he just, I'm sure he felt that God was saying to him good can come out of this.
XAYKAOTHAO: English teacher Marius van Broekhuizen, who is from South Africa, puzzles over why Gomes entered North Korea. He says he talked and prayed with Gomes nearly every week for more than a year.
Mr. VAN BROEKHUIZEN: 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 towards, you know, just loving people and being sacrificial in that. So, we did have good times together, definitely, but it was more a deep relationship than just a fun, you know, relationship, and I learned a lot from him.
XAYKAOTHAO: Van Broekhuizen speculates that his friend went to North Korea to find a purpose in life.
Mr. VAN BROEKHUIZEN: As an outsider, it seems incredibly stupid what he did, but Aijalon stopped living for himself a while ago. 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.
XAYKAOTHAO: Both Van Broekhuizen and Gomes attended the Every Nation Church of Korea. Another 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. Simon Suh is pastor of Every Nation Church in Seoul. He is speaking out for the first time about Gomes and Park.
Pastor SIMON SUH (Pastor, Every Nation Church): I don't know why it happened, but, it just amazingly, just two members from our church going to North Korea. So, 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.
XAYKAOTHAO: 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.
Mr. SUH: There are several occasions that we've been really praying for the family members who came from North Korea and hiding in our shelter in China. So, we've been specifically praying for those people, and I believe that Aijalon was very much moved about those events.
XAYKAOTHAO: When Pastor Suh heard news that Gomes had attempted suicide in a North Korean jail, he felt compelled to do something.
Mr. SUH: When I heard that, I felt like, you know, I need to get really involved and try to help him.
XAYKAOTHAO: Why do you feel a sense of responsibility for this?
Mr. SUH: Aijalon and I had several counseling session where he really wants to pray and to find out God's will, and 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?
XAYKAOTHAO: Joo Gyung-bae is a member of the congregation. He is a North Korean refugee. He remembers sharing his life's struggles with Gomes during prayer meetings. With a heavy heart, 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.
Mr. JOO GYUNG-BAE: (Through translator) He loved us more than anyone. 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 in him.
XAYKAOTHAO: 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.
Professor PARK YOUNG WHAN (Seoul Theological University): (Through translator) We believe and understand that Mr. Gomes entered North Korea with God's plan and goal in mind. But 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.
XAYKAOTHAO: 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 Mr. Gomes and his health, and would like to see him released on humanitarian grounds.
Mr. PHILIP CROWLEY (Spokesman, Department of State): For whatever reason he went to North Korea, he doesn't pose a security threat. And we think on that basis, he should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible.
XAYKAOTHAO: Thalia Schlesinger, a spokeswoman for Gomes' family, says they are grateful to the North Korean government for the healthcare being provided to Aijalon. She says the family just wants to bring him home.
For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao, in Seoul.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: An additional note on this story: Several news organizations, including the Associated Press, are reporting this morning that former President Jimmy Carter will travel to North Korea soon in an attempt to win the release of Aijalon Gomes.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.