Friend: US man held in North Korea ‘not a terrorist’

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BOSTON (AP) — A Boston man facing trial in North Korea for illegally entering the communist country “is not a terrorist” but a deeply religious English teacher dedicated to his students, a friend told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes attends church every Sunday in Seoul and refuses to quit his teaching job in South Korea despite the stress of being in a foreign country, Marshalette Wise said in a telephone interview from that country, where she trains English teachers.

“Aijalon is not a terrorist,” said Wise, a Tuskegee, Ala., native who met Gomes in 2008 while both were teaching English in South Korea. “He is very professional. He’s here to teach English.”

North Korea announced two months ago that an American was detained Jan. 25 for trespassing after crossing into the country from China and was under investigation.

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On Monday, state-run media identified Gomes, 30, as the detainee and said “his crime has been confirmed.” The brief Korean Central News Agency dispatch did not say when he would stand trial.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States wants to make sure the American man is returned as soon as possible.

Thaleia Schlesinger, a family spokeswoman, said Gomes grew up in Boston and graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine before going to South Korea to teach English. Schlesinger said Gomes had been in South Korea for a couple of years.

Wise, 33, said she last talked to Gomes in early January and had no idea he was the detainee until she was contacted by The Associated Press.

She described Gomes as “very friendly” and so “socially conservative” that he didn’t even have a Facebook account. Wise said she saw Gomes wear only slacks and dress shirts, and always wore a bowtie to church.

Wise said Gomes typically went out of his way to make other American teachers in South Korea feel at home and helped them adjust.

For example, she said Gomes once helped her move to a new teaching job an hour and a half away. She said they also attended English music festivals together.

“I hope America steps up and gets him out of there,” Wise said.

Wise said Gomes liked to travel around the region on his days off from his school just north of Seoul. Wise said she didn’t know why he would be in North Korea.

Gomes would be the fourth American detained in communist North Korea on charges of illegal entry in the past year. It was not immediately clear why he crossed into North Korea.

Two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested a year ago near the Chinese border and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.” They were freed in August after former President Bill Clinton made a high-profile humanitarian visit to Pyongyang to negotiate their release.

On Christmas, American missionary Robert Park strode into North Korea from China on a self-proclaimed mission to draw attention to the country’s human rights record and to call for leader Kim Jong Il to step down. He was released last month after more than 40 days in custody.

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