From a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, former North Korean prisoner Robert Park prays for the release of his friend Aijalon Mahli Gomes.
On Christmas Eve, Park crossed into North Korea in hopes of drawing attention to the Communist nation's human rights violations and persecution of Christians. Park was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea and released after six weeks.
Gomes, 31, an English teacher turned Christian activist who attended the same church as Park in Seoul, followed in Park's footsteps, crossing into North Korea on January 25. In April, the North Korean government sentenced the Boston native to eight years in a hard labor camp and fined him $700,000.
Park, who has been hospitalized several times since his February release, has not spoken about his imprisonment.
"I didn't want to cause anything to happen to Aijalon," Park told ChristianityToday in an exclusive interview. "I want him to come out first."
Amid carefully selected answers during the phone interview from the behavioral health center where he has been since making suicidal statements in July, Park prayed several times, not for himself, but for Gomes's return home.
"Father, restore Aijalon to his loved ones in America," Park prayed, his voice laced with urgency. "Show us great and mighty things through the deliverance of Aijalon Gomes."
Park's prayers may finally have been answered.
Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, according to the government-controlled Korean Central News Agency. North Korean officials agreed to release Gomes to Carter, 85. The two are expected to return to the United States by Friday.
Carter's humanitarian visit to negotiate Gomes's release came a year after former President Bill Clinton's August 2009 visit to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to negotiate the release of two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were held captive for five months after illegally entering the country in March 2009.
While Lee and Ling have written books about their North Korean imprisonments, Park is still reluctant to draw attention to himself or reveal details about his imprisonment.
Park says his concern for Gomes and frustration over the lack of media coverage and response to his friend's imprisonment have led him to speak out—and were the cause of his plans for a July 16 suicide demonstration.
Park said he was ready to end his life because nothing was being done, "but God stopped it through the intervention of a friend."
"I was planning to kill myself with a suicide note to bring attention to Aijalon—I feel responsible for him being there," Park said. "He is one of my best friends, and I prayed for my life to be taken and not his."
Park said he feels a burden and responsibility for his friend's release. He was told that Gomes was very emotional when attending several demonstrations for Park's release.
"He wept and prayed fervently and intensely, but he did not say much—I don't think he told his plan to anyone," Park said. "I think he went in, in part, because he was my friend and he wanted to help me."
Park met Gomes, who was teaching English in Seoul, during an overnight prayer meeting. The two attended Every Nation Church of Korea in Seoul.
Simon Suh, pastor of Every Nation Church, told NPR that neither he nor the church encourages members to go to North Korea.
Suh said Park and Gomes may have been drawn to North Korea because of "passionate prayers by defectors now living in the South," many of whom attend their church.
"We were praying for North Korea," Park recalled. "[Gomes] didn't know that much about North Korea and would ask me about North Korea and what it was like there."
Gomes told Park of his interest to teach English in North Korea and an interest to work with the regime.
"I believe Aijalon went into North Korea with a perfect intent and with love in his heart," Park said.
In July, the Korean Central News Agency reported Gomes had attempted suicide. Park said he also fears his friend would be treated as a political prisoner or become lost in the politics of the relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
Observers speculate that North Korea was using Gomes as bargaining leverage with the U.S. over its nuclear program. The Obama administration will engage North Korea only if it comes back to the table in the ongoing six-party talks over its nuclear ambitions. The White House has characterized Carter's trip as "a private humanitarian effort" by a private citizen.
"A life is not something to be confused about—if Aijalon can come home, it is so much more important than any political discussion which we can continue later," Park said. "He is a very young man who has many years to love and serve, and there's no reason for him to die—all it takes is a visit from a U.S. representative."
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