Following his release from North Korea, where he was imprisoned for seven months, Aijalon Mahli Gomes will likely face a long road to recovery.
Gomes, 31, returned to the United States on Friday with former President Jimmy Carter, who traveled to North Korea on Tuesday on a humanitarian visit to negotiate the Boston man's release. North Korean officials agreed to release Gomes to Carter, 85.
Gomes, an English teacher turned Christian activist, crossed 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. It's uncertain why Gomes crossed into North Korea, but most observers speculate he did so in response to the actions of his friend, Robert Park.
On Christmas Eve 2009, Park, 29, 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 and Park both attended Every Nation Church of Korea in Seoul. Simon Suh, the church's pastor, told NPR that the two may have been drawn to North Korea because of "passionate prayers by defectors now living in the South," many of whom attend their church.
Since his release, Park has not spoken about his imprisonment—due in part, he said, to fears for Gomes's safety—and he declined to say anything publicly about North Korea until Gomes was safe.
It has not been an easy transition for Park, who said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and that he fell apart as a person and felt tormented.
"After leaving North Korea, I went through a lot of things—I have been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and it's been very difficult because I know more now than ever how evil the situation in North Korea is," Park told Christianity Today in an exclusive interview. "Once you're there [in North Korea], in that position where you are observing what is happening and you are witnessing evil, and you come to the Western world and everyone is celebrating you are back—it can be aggravating."
During a phone interview from a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, Park said he is "haunted thinking about the people" in North Korea.
Park, who became a Christian when he was 21 and was ordained as a missionary in Arizona in 2007, said when he left North Korea he was tired and didn't want to do anything more, but found inspiration in Proverbs 31:8-9 and Psalm 82:2-4. (Both passages tell readers to defend and rescue the weak.)
As to why he went to North Korea, Park said he came to love the North Korean people he met through his missionary work.
"I was working in China with North Korean refugees, and many refugees wanted to go back because they were concerned about their families," Park said. "The North Korean people are very good people, but the regime has no sense of right or wrong."
North Korea holds an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners for political and religious reasons, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom.
Park said he wanted to raise awareness about North Korea, confront the regime, and see human rights groups come together and unite for a mass movement.
"We need to come together and we need to stop this," Park said. "I would have never gone in if there was a mass movement."
However, Park said he never wanted anyone else to enter the country as he did, nor was he "on a self-proclaimed mission to liberate North Korea."
"My hope was, through sacrifice, that maybe there would be repentance and people could come together to address issues in North Korea," he said.
But Park said that did not happen.
"It takes work, and the church and human rights groups have to realize the most important thing is that we come together," he said. "This generation has to be captivated and compelled because this is the most systematically intentional genocide since the Holocaust."
Park says he is not angry with God, but he is frustrated with the church.
"My wish and my hope and prayer is for the church to rise and spearhead the move for liberation," he said.
Park says one of the best ways for Christians to help North Koreans is to redirect money to refugees and North Koreans assisting refugees.
"North Korean people know how to get money to hard-hit areas that can lead to family reunification and food going to inaccessible areas when other organizations are not quite as urgent or knowledgeable," he said. "The North Korean people themselves love their homeland and they desire liberation more than anyone else—their hearts are in North Korea."
Christianity Today published an interview with Park about Gomes last week as North Korea announced it would release him. We also covered Park's entry and exit from North Korea and his return to the United States.
More article on North Korea are available in our archives.