North Korea says imprisoned American with Maine ties speaks to family

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — An American imprisoned in North Korea was allowed to speak to his family by telephone Friday, state media said in a report with 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 in early April for entering the country illegally in January 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. The Bowdoin College graduate had been teaching English in South Korea.

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

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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, was trying to confirm the North Korean report with family members.

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 United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, and Sweden handles U.S. interests in the North.

In Stockholm, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the report.

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 rights record. Park was released in February without charge after the regime said he “repented.”

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 Kim.

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

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