SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea threatened to increase punishment for an American sentenced to hard labor for illegally entering the country, linking his case to U.S. criticism of Pyongyang over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, from Boston, was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for entering the country illegally and for an unspecified “hostile act.”
The North is examining what harsher measures to take against Gomes under a wartime law, and would be compelled to consider applying the law if the U.S. persists in its “hostile approach,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.
North Korea has freed three other Americans detained for illegal entry, but ruled out Gomes’ release amid tensions over the March sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul and Washington have blamed on the North.
The North denies it was responsible and has warned any moves to punish it at the U.N. could lead to armed conflict, and possibly nuclear war.
“The U.S. government is requesting the (North) to leniently set him free from a humanitarian stand, but such thing can never happen under the prevailing situation and there remains only the issue of what harsher punishment will be meted out to him,” KCNA said.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department told North Korea not to link Gomes’ case to the sinking of the ship, saying the country should “separate political rhetoric from this matter concerning a private American citizen.”
Little is known about the conditions under which Gomes is being held. His motivation for entering North Korea is also unclear. He had been teaching English in South Korea before being arrested in the North on Jan. 25.