Mr. Gomes is the American teacher who was held captive in North Korea during much of the year 2010.
Today, Aijalon Gomes is one of a handful of westerners to have been held as an expatriate, international prisoner of conscience by the North Korean regime. Five years on from his ordeal, Mr. Gomes is living in Boston and pursuing his normal life, and he has graciously agreed to discuss his captivity for human rights students everywhere.
Q: In January of 2010, you were an American living in Seoul, teaching English lessons to Korean students there. And you had found a local Christian church that you joined. You were black. And you were gay. What do you recall the most about your time in Seoul? What was your personal community or circle of friends like?
AG: Actually I was teaching in the rural part of Korea. About an hour out by train, and about a thirty minute bus ride.
For several months I had no community where I lived, so I traveled on Sundays, about two hours, and then took a taxi to get to the “mother church” my Korean aunt introduced me to while I was still living in Boston.
It was a huge church; and although I was immediately recognized as different, and welcomed and provided an ear piece for translation, it felt too overwhelming and cultish to me, so I eventually stopped going. That, plus the commute.
I was exhausted by the time I got home each night, and I had to teach elementary aged kids the next morning each day.
I have been abstinent for many years, so being gay wasn’t a part of my immediate identity.
Being black, on the other hand, in the rural parts of Korea, was like being someone famous. I was gawked at wherever I went, and people wanted to touch my skin; and even more so when they discovered I was American and could speak English!
Q: At some point you formed an idea. You were going to walk into North Korea. How did your idea come about? How did you arrive at it?
AG: The idea actually came about before I decided to teach in South Korea. I had been fasting and praying and seeking direction for my life. While in a church service praying, I heard in my head one word – “Korea.”
I had been contacted some months earlier by a recruiting company to teach English there but I had never been out of the country, so I refused.
But when I heard the word “Korea” I immediately began to make plans. But more than that, one day while socializing with a group of Korean/American women after church (they were all military wives), one woman said:
“There is only one Korea – South Korea. North Koreans are not Koreans.”
I was shocked, and deeply hurt and offended. For me it brought up thoughts about racism, segregation, and the condition of race inequality in America.
I decided that after I taught English in the South, I would find a way to teach the children in the North as well.
Q: Before you approached North Korea successfully, you had a spur-of-the-moment episode while teaching in South Korea where you took a taxi to the DMZ, and snuck behind an outbuilding, and you ended up spending three days in the snow, climbing up and down cold mountain ridges hardened by South Korean military posts. You even stumbled into a control room of some kind. Looking back on that, were you in danger of being shot on sight or falling into a ravine, had you not been lucky?
AG: Of course I was in danger! I understood and was prepared for the risks. I knew that if I was caught, I would be detained, or shot, or killed.
Q: To approach North Korea on your second attempt, you traveled first into China. Was that scary? Was the travel difficult? Who did you meet during that trip?
AG: I wasn’t afraid to travel to China. The plane ride was actually quick and convenient – I was seated next to a Godsend.
A woman from the northern part of China was returning from her shopping trip to Korea. Apparently it was cheaper to buy goods from there. We exchanged in what little of Korean we had between us.
In fact, after we disembarked and passed customs she found me while I was trying to acquire a taxi, and she offered to drive me to Tumen City.
It wasn’t necessarily on her way, and so I am so thankful to her—and the universe—for arranging that encounter.
If it wasn’t for her and her family I would have had greater difficulty getting to Tumen City, which is about an hour-long ride from the airport.
Q: How long do you recall spending in China while you were making your way to the North Korean border?
AG: I arrived at night, and after a hotel was arranged by this same Godsend, I awoke the next morning and spent the day walking the city and observing the border surroundings.
Q: By the time you had traveled all the way to the China and North Korea border, what had you brought as provisions? What did you have to bring with you as you were preparing to cross into North Korea on foot?
AG: I had only my backpack, with my computer and a Korean/American Bible in it. Oh, and some toiletries.
Q: You found a place to cross at the border where there was a river that was frozen over? Which River? What did it look like? How wide was it where you would have to walk across?
AG: It was the Tumen River which divides the borders. I don’t know how wide it was, but I figured I could run across it. If I had to guess, I would say it was more or less than thirty to forty feet.
Q: What can you remember about that moment where you began to cross the frozen river? What were you feeling right then?
AG: Fear! First I was afraid the ice wouldn’t hold, so I crept slowly at first. Then I began a fast-paced walk across. Throughout, I oscillated between ‘I’m going to make it’ and ‘I’m going to get shot!’
Q: Had anyone given you any advice about in which direction you might walk, or what you should to try to head towards once you crossed over into North Korean territory?
AG: No. I did a little research about the area before I boarded the plane to China.
Q: Once you started to walk across the frozen river, how far did you make it? What happened?
AG: I was a several steps from the border, maybe about halfway, before a soldier appeared from behind some brush and I was ordered at gunpoint to stop.
Q: The soldiers who came out and grabbed you, how many of them were there? Did they appear to speak English at all? Were they asking you to answer them in Korean?
AG: It was the one at first; then a second came shortly after pointing his gun.
After forcing me to the ground the one that held me first ordered the other to tie my hands.
They spoke only in Korean, so everything was done by gestures and with force.
Although I understood them, I didn’t want them to know that, so I said nothing and pretended not to understand.
Q: They grabbed you in the middle of the frozen river. They didn’t try to turn you back, to force you back into Chinese territory? Did you ever find out why? You had hardly gone far enough to trespass. It seems like they wanted to detain you more than they wanted to keep their border clear.
AG: I suppose I was more on their side of the river than the other, so, no.
They just tied my hands behind my back, and nudged with their guns behind my left shoulder.
MC: As they dragged you and walked you the rest of the way across the frozen river to the North Korea side, where did they take you? The North Korean landscape that they were pulling you deeper into; what did it look like?
AG: The bank of the river was rugged and hilly, but a short distance on the other side was a cement structure I hadn’t seen earlier that day.
MC: Other than this landscape, what was the next thing that you saw as the soldiers were walking you further in?
AG: It was dark. I could only look at the ground to see where I was stepping.
MC: While they were detaining you and drawing you further in, did your emotional state change from what we might call adventurous and curious into an ‘uh oh, why did I do this?’ type of self-doubt or panic?
AG: It was actually a strange relief. I had accomplished entering the border.
My only regret at the time was being caught before I could reach a village or meet a civilian, which was the goal.
I wanted to see and hear their version of North Korea and have the opportunity to teach.
MC: How far do you think they moved you into North Korean space before they reached the stopping point?
AG: I was still on the edges of the border, but they eventually moved me into a cement cell connected to a wooden lean-to.
MC: How did the rest of that day, the day the soldiers grabbed you on the frozen river, play out?
AG: I was moved to a cement cell, which was beyond freezing. On the way in, I passed a woman and a man in plain clothing seated near a fire cooking or something.
After a wooden door was opened, I was untied and forced into the cement crawlspace. It was no bigger than a dog’s house.
A little while later, an old blanket that looked like carpet underlayment was thrown in. And later still, a package of Korean or Chinese snack food was tossed in.
MC: When you rose the next morning to stand, did it immediately occur to you that you were now an international political prisoner?
AG: I knew I was a prisoner the entire night I spent in the cell. My shivering kept me awake the entire evening.
I tried singing to keep warm, but eventually the woman complained, and I was told to keep quiet. I couldn’t even feel the warmth of the fire through the wooden door, which I knew wasn’t locked.
But I had crossed their border illegally and I was now subject to them and their rules.
As I said, I knew or I imagined the consequences if I were discovered, and I was prepared to accept them – at the time.
MC: While you were held in the cement box on that first night of your capture, you made the small gesture of taking a Chinese yuan note from your pocket and placing it under a rock that was next to you. Who were you hoping would find the money?
AG: I was hoping some other person or defector held there might use it as leverage to be allowed to cross into Tumen City.
MC: In your time in South Korea, you taught English for a time at an orphanage. The children called you “Bear teacher” in Korean because “gom,” the Korean word for bear, if pretty close to “Gomes.” This was an endearment, and you clearly had the gift of kindling friendships with many of the local people you worked and lived beside in South Korea. As your captivity in the North went on, did you find that it was easy for you to find affinities with some of your captors, and some of the North Koreans you may have come across, outside of the military guards?
AG: Absolutely! Their knowledge of the world outside North Korea is, in fact, censured and manipulated, so I was a natural curiosity.
Although the interpreter and I eventually grew close, the most memorable “friendship” was with the guard who drew caricatures of me, and the nurses, and who made attempts to lift my spirit at a critical time before my trial.
MC: The day after your capture, the guards drove you to another military post. What happened there?
AG: We stopped at three military posts after I was captured. The first was not too far from the border. We arrived there while it was still morning.
I was seated on the floor in a room with a guard posted at the door, while I waited until evening for an investigative official to arrive with an interpreter.
At the second post, I was accompanied by the interpreter into a small room with a single bed.
The interpreter was actually an English teacher from an outlying province. We had an instant connection.
I remember his kindness and his curiosity about the world outside of North Korea.
I also remember some sort of choir rehearsal going on in the space above us as we dined and talked together.
The last overnight stay was a second story apartment on the base.
MC: As you rode in the guards’ auto on that second day, did you reflect at all on Robert Park—a friend you had made, a Korean-American you’d met in Seoul who, as the world would come to find out, had also crossed the border into North Korea, about a month before you did, during December of 2009, and who, on that second day of your captivity, was also being held in captivity somewhere in the same North Korean apparatus.
Did you think you’d see him there at some point? Did you think his captivity would affect yours, or that yours could now affect his?
AG: I didn’t think I would see him. I had hoped to, but I heard Robert was being released before I had made attempts to enter the border. Naturally I thought of him and how my actions could affect our mutual situation. And in one way I think it did.
I am convinced the Korean/American Study Bible equipped with hymnals was used to trick Robert into believing North Koreans have religious freedom when he was allowed to visit a “church” in Pyongyang. But I wouldn’t find that out until much later.
During the ride to Pyongyang I was only concerned about my fate and observing the surroundings – comparing and contrasting fact and rumor.
MC: Soon after your brief time at this second outpost, you were driven overland to Pyongyang, in a Ford Expedition SUV of all things; this was a journey of vistas, replete with an appropriate soundtrack in the truck’s stereo. Describe this journey for us.
AG: I was comparing and contrasting the things I heard from the North Korean defectors I had met in the South together with photos from the internet.
Besides the natural beauty of mountain ranges and deep valleys seen from the road hanging off from the sides of them – I witnessed the people who walked those inclines carrying bundles or very rarely driving an ox pulled cart.
As we approached, they prepared the road for us by filling in potholes and tamping them with their feet or halting to one side until we passed.
As we got closer to the capitol, I began to see more of an infrastructure, but the cement buildings all seemed abandoned; still, they all had some faded slogan with pictures of soldiers or the father, son, and mother of the nation.
At one intersection they sold wares, and there were several community efforts to rock military trucks out of ditches.
At one point, I was told to close my eyes while we drove past the scene of a pedestrian who had evidently been run over.
MC: Because you spoke some Korean, you could make small talk with the guards who drove you. Over and over again, the topic between you returned to the reunification of the Koreas, the prospects for that. Looking back, how would you describe their views on unification? Were they seeming to parrot some official line their superiors wanted to hear, or did they have a range of nuances in their opinions expressed to you?
AG: I actually spoke only to one of the officers, the one to the right of me, who spoke broken English.
When the subject of reunification surfaced, I got the impression from that officer, and way he expressed in Korean to his superior … the general ideal was that Korea would be reunited. Under what nation’s ideology remained in question.
MC: As you approached the city limits of Pyongyang at the end of that trip, you came to an intersection where you were struck by the sight of two different people at either end of an intersection, one woman and one man, who were both, for lack of a better term, really good looking and well-dressed. I suppose that any of us journeying to Pyongyang the first time would expect nothing but grime and weather-beaten faces. What was it about this passing scene that you meditated on later?
AG: I was amazed at the orderliness and cleanliness of the city and its people.
Everyone seemed to quietly and respectfully go about their duty. Even the queue for the bus was without the chaos I’ve seen living in metropolitan areas.
I was also struck that there were so few people milling about. But the ones I did see were most likely not in the military and had some influence, for it seemed they were more fashionable.
The guy I saw wore a black turtleneck and slacks, and possessed a swagger I’ve seen on runways.
MC: Once in Pyongyang, you were taken up the steps of a hotel, and placed in a room where you could sit in a chair or on a bed but were forbidden to lay down. You were left there, sitting, inside the whole time, with occasional meals brought in, for four or five days. Against the massive sweep of the length of your total captivity, that doesn’t seem like much, but as the hours went on, and one of these days turned into the next, what changes in your state of mind did you feel arriving on the inside?
AG: I think the effects on my degenerating mind were intentional.
The solitude and the days without hearing anything about what was going to happen to me caused my imagination to run the course of all types of scenarios.
I began preparing answers to questions I assumed were to be asked and was preparing at every moment to be transported, tortured or killed.
My mind was in a constant state of alert and worry, and that high level of stress causes fatigue in body and brain and morale to be disheartened. And I alternated between questioning and blaming God, and praying and meditating.
MC: This period of waiting ended when you were dressed in a laundered pea coat you had carried with you, and put in a videotaped room with someone the interpreter described to you as a high ranking North Korean official. This official told you that you were required to sign a “confession” written in Korean before an investigation into your offense of entering the country could begin. You asked for a clarification in Korean—‘I have to sign a confession before you will begin the investigation?’ and then, after some back and forth that ended with the official berating you, you chose not to sign the document?
AG: Yes, I refused to sign the document unless it was translated into English or I could speak with someone from the United Nations or my country.
Although I had a proficiency in understanding and speaking Korean (I didn’t want them to know that), but reading Korean was still difficult – which is why I brought a Korean/American Bible with me so I could study further.
Regardless, I did not want to sign something that could mean signing my life away.
I didn’t know what “rights” I had to refuse, but I did not want my ultimate purpose of teaching English to be misconstrued.
MC: There was a moment you had while in your Pyongyang hotel. A translator was speaking to you alone, and you asked him whether he’d have any interest in studying abroad, and whether he was allowed to do so.
And he told you, “yes, we can do that, anybody can leave the country, if they ask for a special permission.”
Did you understand that as this man repeating something that a higher official had told him, but something that perhaps he knew, down deep, to be a fiction?
AG: I knew when he looked away with downcast eyes—the same look I saw in the first interpreter I encountered at the border when he spoke of his aspirations and inquisitions about other nations— that leaving the country was a distant hope.
They all but said ‘it was reserved only for a selected few,’ like being chosen for an elite space expedition or winning a lottery, except the lottery was rigged, and favored the nationalistic and elite.
MC: As things turned out, you were kept in this same hotel room for all of the remainder of the following month—all of February of 2010. That is a long time to spend in a single place before you know or learn what is ultimately going to become of you. A long time in limbo, I suppose. What do you remember about February of 2010, about that hotel room you were confined to? About the guards or the interpreters who came in to check on you during that time?
AG: As I recall, it was the latter part of January through early March.
My mind was in constant upheaval.
The most vivid memories are of those planning my escape – of jumping through windows, digging through cement walls, overtaking the guards or creeping out while they slept.
My imagination is overactive to begin with, so another memory is of a guard whom I assumed to have a degree of autism. I don’t know if it is true or not to this day, but I justifiably accused him of defiling my meals by urinating in my soup dishes!
As for the interpreter whose assignment was to translate to me, I knew he desperately wanted to converse freely with me, but, as he said, it was forbidden.
MC: It was reported in the media, early on, that Sweden’s diplomatic corps in North Korea had made efforts to see you and act in the United States’ interests in communicating with you. You were driven to a meeting with the diplomat Johan Eidman, and one of the decisions that you made in that meeting with him was that you did yet not want details of your detention to be made public to the world media. Looking back, was that a momentous decision? In hindsight do you think it produced any effect on your captivity?
AG: My goal was not to be a part of a media stampede.
I had an admittedly naïve but altruistic reason for entering North Korea.
I wanted to reaffirm that my intentions were not a publicity stunt.
I have no way of knowing, but I hope it indicated my sincerity to their “powers that be.”
MC: That interlude of relief with the Swedish consul was soon followed by more interrogation sessions with the North Korean regime’s investigator. What do you recall about him? Is it true that at one point he crisply asked you to affirm that Boston, Mass. was “founded in 1630 by Puritan colonists from England?” What was the method to his madness, as they say, from your point of view?
AG: Honestly, I alternate the cause for their motives between a regurgitation of historical fact from recent information passed onto them from the Swedish Embassy or the State Department, or blatant Gestapo tactics – or possibly both.
MC: During more than one interrogation, you were asked if you came to North Korea “to investigate the human rights situation” and each time you gave the, frankly, bold answer “No, but if I had discovered any human right issues here, I would have addressed them.”
Tell us about that point of view, that resolve that you were drawing from in answering like that.
AG: How can I, as a member of the human race, abide the disregard for life?
The greatest heritage I have, from my great grandmother, is not idly allowing the mistreatment of children. As she would say, “That child didn’t ask to come into this world…”
MC: From your written accounts, it seems that each time you gave that answer to the question “are you a human rights researcher,” the interrogator seemed to drop the subject, moving on to something else. Did they seem reluctant to rebuff your challenging statement? Did they seem to want to make it appear as if they wanted to talk about your interest in human rights, but not really probe into that topic?
AG: It seemed to me that all the parties involved knew of human rights abuses and/or were aware that the world had been informed of them.
In a statement Robert Park sent me via email, which I regrettably but intentionally carried with me on my laptop, it addressed the subject of human rights repeatedly.
I desired an eyewitness account, or at the very least a dialogue.
But a candid conversation wouldn’t come until after my trial and near the occasion of my ultimate release. But yes, I believe they wanted to tie my captivity politically to that of Robert Parks’, using his manifesto.
But human rights abuses weren’t my ultimate concern.
The adage of “teaching a man to fish…” comes to mind … I could personally do very little about feeding or freeing millions of individuals … but I could impart my humanity, and attempt to educate.
MC: Toward the end of March, a new North Korean official visited you—you recalled him as an elegant man smoking Chinese cigarettes—to advise you that you would be put on trial. He told you there would be a trial, but at the same time he told you that you would be released at the conclusion of the trial, since North Korea had determined that you were not a threat or a foreign agent? What did you take away from this news? Did he seem to be telling you that there a trial just for show?
AG: I knew enough at that point that everything was for show and could not be trusted.
I knew I was being lied to and told what I wanted to hear so that I would be willing sign the papers I had originally refused.
It was all a ruse, but I was broken, and weary of the games being played for my life.
I signed with red ink, and imprinted my fingerprint on every document he and the interpreter stacked in front of me.
I was in the hospital, and just wanted it all to be over with.
MC: This same elegant man—the High Official—advised you to cast your eyes downward for the duration of your trial, to not even glance at any of the judges, or sideways at any diplomatic officials in the gallery. Did you begin to suspect that this trial was going to be videotaped somehow, like a recorded TV episode, with you starring as the remorseful trespasser?
AG: Absolutely! It was all staged for whomever, wherever. I’ve been in plays and productions, mostly in my undergraduate days, and this was no different.
The stage was certainly more elaborate, and the video camera more evident, but I was a player in a reality show, pleading for forgiveness and my very life.
It was the most authentic part I have ever played.
MC: This same man reiterated to you before you trial commenced that if you did exactly as he said, you would be sent home to Boston immediately upon the trial’s conclusion?
AG: I was repeatedly reassured that if I did exactly as I was told, I would be placed on a plane as Robert Park had been in the video shown to me.
I was disappointed, and disgusted, at being used, as a pawn or for leverage for political gain, by “powers-at-large.”
MC: Now, five years later, what do you most recall about the trial of April 6, 2010?
AG: I remember the look on the faces of the Swedish ambassadors.
They knew, if I wasn’t fully aware then, that the entire proceeding was a sham.
I also remember the light shining through the cathedral-like pane overhead as I pleaded for my life in the speech I delivered.
That spotlight was a testament before God, and the universe, of my truth and true intentions.
I also knew for certain I wasn’t going home.
MC: At the close of the short trial, the judges deliberated for all of ten minutes and then returned to read out their judgment on you, which was a conviction and a sentence. What sentence did they impose on you?
AG: I was convicted of “espionage” and “attempting to overthrow the government.” I was sentenced to eight years in prison, and fined 700,000 US dollars.
MC: You had a further encounter with the elegant High Official, who continued to assure you, even as he mentioned that you were being driven to a prison “as a formality” that your release and return home was imminent. What was this man’s position, and in hindsight, why was he expending so much effort to suspend your normal belief that the charges were real, the trial was real, and that this trip to a prison would be real?
AG: I would say that I am a good judge of character, and although this man was sent in to coerce me, for someone’s ulterior motive, I was also certain that he had major influence with his higher ups.
Korean custom is built on the notion of Confucius’s idea of hierarchy, and the notion of doing unto to others as you would have done to yourself – a principle not far from what Jesus and others have taught.
My faith was not ultimately in this man, but in the justice I hoped, and still hope, to receive.
MC: Your trial was over, your sentence had been imposed, it was now a rainy early April, and you were first confined to a strange kind of villa house where you were instructed to make bricks all day using cement, a water hose, and a simple mould. This must have seemed surreal. Was this clearly an ad hoc kind of punishment someone in the regime had invented on the spot for you? What did you think about it?
AG: It was certainly an invented punishment. The cause is still unclear. At the time I felt demeaned but grateful the task wasn’t as grueling as it could have been.
MC: You received another visit from the “high official” you were familiar with, and he clearly advised you that the North Korean government was holding out, waiting for the United States to pay the $700,000 sum the North had demanded the Obama administration pay to secure your release.
When were you able to get any insight on just what exactly the communications were between the North Koreans and the U.S. State department about your status and the conditions of your release?
AG: The information I was afforded was inaccurate, and was only provided to ease my increasing anxiety.
I had no realistic perception of what was being done for my release. I couldn’t and didn’t have confidence in the information I was provided.
I trusted the Swedish Embassy; still, they were vague with me at certain points.
MC: At some point in your stay at this makeshift villa-turned-internment center, you were advised that a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, had been sunk, and that this would now delay progress toward your release.
AG: Yes, the interpreter entered the room and told me that a ship had been sunk, and North Korea was the cause being blamed. The television broadcasts had said as much, so I prepared myself for some consequences.
MC: I will tell you that, from the outside, the world press reported—over the course of several days in late March of 2010—that the Cheonan was sunk in what looked like a surprise attack by an undetected North Korean mini-sub that fired a torpedo.
It was reported as an unbelievably belligerent military provocation by North Korea during the same time in which North Korea was holding you.
What did the North Korean officials tell you about the crisis or the scandal relating to this incident?
AG: It was reported on television I watched. I knew instinctively the incident was going to affect my condition directly. It aggravated me to know that people had perished, and that I was going to be used further, as a pawn.
MC: In later April you were granted another meeting with the Swedish consul Johan Eidman, and he brought you letters written by your family. What did it do to you to read these? Did the experience of getting these letters change your outlook, our mindset, your strategy for survival, at all?
AG: I was overjoyed to receive letters from my family and very grateful to have them – to be able to receive them at all.
They sustained and encouraged me. I only wish there had been more. I read them repeatedly, and could not get enough of words from my family. The hope, and the joy the letters provided kept up my will to live.
MC: Eidman also brought you a book to help pass the time. It was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. What did that do for you, given where you were and the uncertainty and also the drudgery of the brick pouring work you were living with?
AG: I tear up as I think about the reading material I was given.
The White Tiger inspired me to consider the life I had survived, and encouraged me to believe in a future freedom.
The mistreatment of children is still a cause for me. I cannot abide it.
MC: You were given more books, the last of which was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson. What did you draw from reading Larson?
AG: I was immediately inspired. I deigned to have the intellect and resources to impact my own situation and the world. The narrative was my own, and I rooted for her survival and success. I fantasized about the content of the trilogy and it gave me hope to one day encounter them. The survival of child abuse is a wonder, and I appreciate the expression of it.
MC: As April and May turned into June, and the monotony, the everyday sameness of your confinement went on, you had a pretty bad day in late June where you kind of snapped and ran out from your cell into a common area with an eye toward escaping, until a gaggle of guards dragged you back, with a few punches and kicks for good measure.
Have you reflected on what you were going through just then and how it manifested to your state of mind? It seems you experienced a typical panic attack—which is to be expected any time someone is confined like that for the first time in their lives, not to mention in a close society on the other side of the world from home.
What do you think you were going through, and was it inevitable? Did you not have any other option other than to endure that sort of “dark day of the soul?”
AG: I was fed up and tired. I knew, since the sinking of the ship, and the absence of the interpreter, that my predicament was not so favorable.
I was conscious that I had placed myself in that situation, still, I had reached a point I had not yet experienced.
I was confined and had means of escape, but I resisted out of respect – for my decision to cross the border, and for the sake of the guards.
It was also because one of the guards had a moment of human connection with me and then disappeared.
I was deeply hurt, because I thought he was punished for reaching out. The following day another guard replaced him and seemed more privileged.
The new guard expressed a hate for my being American, and then would listen to his mp3 player.
I can’t really rationalize what caused me to run from the room, but it was an opportunity I felt (or heard God or the universe say to me) I had to take.
MC: But things were to get darker yet. By July 4, 2010, you had resolved to make a suicide attempt.
The plan was to open your arm veins with razor blades. What were the external factors you think pushed you to the point of considering suicide? What were you being told, if anything, about the North Koreans plans for your confinement or other punishments?
AG: I wasn’t being told anything. And that was one of the issues.
I hadn’t had contact with the Swedish Embassy, and I had been viciously attacked.
I felt I needed to do something drastic to get out of a situation with no guidelines.
Since my first escape attempt failed, I was determined to leave in a box or walk (or run) out the door.
I was also aware that negotiations were at a stalemate.
The news broadcasts about the ship, and old grievances, sounded tiresome and unproductive. It was a planned decision – one I had prepared to take before I entered North Korea.
MC: You went through with the suicide attempt. You sat in a bathtub while the guards outside your chamber were watching Tom & Jerry cartoons.
It was perhaps the fiftieth consecutive day you had where the day had passed like that. Your confinement, the guards outside, smoking and watching Tom & Jerry.
You have written a very detailed account of the suicide attempt. It is hard to read.
One of the things you found out was that it hurts, a lot.
You doing violence to your flesh and muscle and arteries, and you were repaid in pain every millisecond of the way.
You also found out that your body’s capacity for shock as a survival reflex was pretty impressive, because you somehow lived. How did you live through your attempted suicide?
AG: It’s very hard to talk about this.
With the amount of blood I lost, my less than average physique, and the pain, I can’t really give you a sensible account of how I survived.
I do attribute my survival to God, and to the plans of the universe.
I also believe I survived by the will and wisdom of my great grandmother. The intelligence I acquired while I was caring for her reminded me of certain techniques used in such situations.
Eventually I was instructed by God, the universe, or my great grandmother herself, to leave the bath tub, and to at least try to be warm before my blood was let out.
The guards found me, and I was rushed to the hospital. I passed out more than once trying to prevent my hospitalization, but I suppose I am meant to live.
MC: You spent all of July and into August in the hospital, recovering. Although you were alive and your physical health was being nursed back toward normal, you were now a shadow of the hale and hearty man you were when you walked onto that frozen river in January.
And it seems that what transported you from the robust physical and mental health you were in to your hospitalized state of post-suicide attempt fragility, was the bewildering combination of isolation and uncertainty—where every day you were hoping that you might have a chance to go home soon, but where every day you also saw no progress toward that and you were suspended in this brick-making, Tom & Jerry re-run kind of nether zone.
AG: Hope was the cause of my survival. Every second, I believed that someone or something would and could rescue me.
The tears and the prayers were my manna.
I had no recourse or source of inspiration besides my faith.
I had stopped eating, as a form of protest, and the Swedish Embassy was made to endure my self-induced madness.
I was extremely stubborn. I was going home – in a box, or by my self-determination.
MC: In the first week of that August, you were still being held in the hospital, but there was a breakthrough. A delegation of American officials was being allowed to visit you. They, along with the Swedish consular officials, came to check on you, and they brought you a packet of, among other things, M&Ms.
What did this visit do for your state of mind? Did it cause you to think of the geopolitics of your situation, along the lines of “Whoa, America is coming to try and get me released.”? What were your thoughts after their visit ended?
AG: My initial reaction was one of extreme joy and surprise!
I was constantly being told by North Koreans that America and Obama’s (“Your black kin, Gomes”) administration was doing nothing for my release.
Even though I was informed of their arrival, I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe until I saw them for myself.
I gave out hugs to the entire delegation as soon as they entered the hospital wing.
Still, my trust in the politics and politicians had long expired. I saw the delegation twice. The first meeting was a series of test given by two members of “Doctors Without Borders” – a physical examination, and then various psychological tests.
At the second meeting, before they left back to America, I knew I wasn’t going home with them, and I said so frankly.
Although they reassured me that they were doing everything possible, my hope had been depleted.
Thankfully, I had enough left to endure until the end of August when President Carter arrived.
MC: When was it after that American delegation visit that you first heard that a deal had finally been struck and that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was coming to Pyongyang to bring you home?
AG: It was about two days before President Carter’s arrival!
I began to see old news reels of President Carter and the late Kim, Il-sung on the television.
I wasn’t formally informed until late August, it was sometime in the evening—about twelve hours before his arrival.
MC: Did you also learn from one of the North Korean officials interacting with you that the North Korean government had been kind of “holding out” for a famous or high profile American to be sent to Pyongyang—someone of Jimmy Carter’s level of fame? What did you learn about that?
AG: I was being told that the North Korean government was doing everything in its power to allow me to go home, but that America would not send anyone to acquire my release.
I knew from a previous incident—with the two female journalists held in captivity—that the North Korean government prided itself on America bending the knee, so to speak.
The news reels indicated such as their way to legitimize their government, their leader, their way of life, and their status amongst the world powers.
MC: Someone who would accompany President Carter on the trip to get you also let it slip that the former President and the Carter Center people had wanted to retrieve you earlier, in the month of July, but that this had been disallowed by some decision makers in the State Department or the Obama White House team? This must have been intensely interesting to you, as news or a bit of gossip. What if anything more did you find out about this?
AG: Yes, on the plane ride home President Carter stood at my side with his hand on my shoulder and told me himself “we would have come to get you around mid-July but that they were hindered by the State Department.”
I was mortified. The gap was during the days of my hunger strike, some of the lowest days of my life, and they could have been prevented.
President Carter informed me that the State Department wanted to send their own delegation ahead— I suppose, to discover my worthiness—but I remembered then that I was on a plane leaving Korean airspace, and I was just grateful for this man of God who was by and on my side.
MC: By August 26 of 2010, a combined travel team from the State Department and the Carter Center had arrived to check you out of the hospital. One of them asked you if you had been physically mistreated, abused, tortured, by the North Koreans during your captivity. You said in response that you preferred to wait until everyone was aboard the airplane before answering the question.
There were unverified press accounts during your captivity that indicated that you had been subjected to forms of torture, whether during interrogation or for some other reason. If you are willing to talk about it . . . beyond what the guards did when you tried to escape the villa, roughing you up with punches and kicks, did you, as a captive, receive any torture, any intentional physical abuse, from anyone involved with your captivity in North Korea?
AG: Out of respect for President Carter, who indicated his desire to maintain an amicable relationship with North Korea, I do not wish to answer that question.
As the title of my autobiography suggests, there were moments of violence and of humanity.
At some later date, with President Carter’s permission, or otherwise, I may reveal more of my treatment in North Korea.
This is the reason I have not given more interviews, and why I hesitated to publish the autobiography for some time.
MC: Jimmy Carter was accompanied on the trip to get you by a man named John Moores. Mr. Moores, you would come to learn, was a trustee of the Carter Center, the owner of the San Diego Padres professional baseball team, and also the man who donated the private jet that the Jimmy Carter team used to fly to Pyongyang.
I want to report that Mr. Moores’ personal and financial contributions to the rescue trip to Pyongyang were completely unheralded. His involvement or assistance did not appear in any of the press accounts that I followed regarding your release.
Were you able to speak with him on the flight out of Pyongyang? What did you say to him?
AG: John Moores, Sr. was very instrumental in the efforts of my release. I did speak with him on several occasions, and we took pictures together on the plane ride home, which he sent to me at my request.
And after we landed at Logan Airport, I jokingly stated that even though he owned the Padres I was still a Red Sox fan!
He had given me his business card and I have emailed him and sent letters of gratitude.
MC: Concerning President Carter, what is your recollection of the day you left North Korea with him?
AG: President Jimmy Carter was my savior, and I felt his genuine kindness. His humility and his smile from the heart are incomparable, and to be envied.
MC: You then had a series of very long flights to take you from Pyongyang to, eventually Boston. What raced through your mind during all the quiet time on the airplanes? Were you trying to make sense of your captivity and all that had led up to it? Were your thoughts on a future in Boston? What did you find yourself returning to as an item you were meditating on?
AG: It was all surreal. I vacillated between thinking ‘is this really happening,’ ‘is this really the President,’ ‘am I going to be taken into the back of the plane for interrogation,’ ‘am I going to be arrested,’ ‘was this all a ruse for further abuses,’ and so forth.
In North Korea, I had been lied to and hopeless so many times I just didn’t want to believe what was happening!
I didn’t want to trust anyone or anything until I landed in Boston and saw my family.
Although many of the passengers sat comfortably and slept, I remained on high alert.
President Carter had given me his personal Bible to read, and I meditated on my faith.
I didn’t know what awaited me in Boston, and had no hopes for the future. I just wanted and needed my body and brain to rest.
MC: Did you go through any kind of debriefing with the State Department officials once you returned to Boston? Did anyone from the U.S. government give you a list of things about your captivity and rescue that you could or could not talk about now that you were again a free man?
AG: To my surprise, after being reunited with my family in the terminal, I never saw the State Department again.
I sent letters of gratitude to them, and they acknowledged the receipt, along with a bill for thousands of dollars for my Pyongyang hospital stay.
After some negotiations through my lawyer the astronomical amount was reduced, and funds were raised.
But, no, I wasn’t given anything specific to say, or not to say, but again, upon debarking, President Carter indicated that I shouldn’t engage the media.
MC: How did you spend your first two or three days at home after that last flight you took landed in Boston?
AG: After landing in Boston I entered the terminal to greet my family and meet members of the State Department.
I was then immediately led to a family member’s car, which was escorted by a state trooper through traffic.
I stayed with my aunt and uncle for a few days spending time with my family.
I was also taken to see a psychiatrist. I spoke with her a few times and was diagnosed with PTSD.
I’m an extremely independent person and it is difficult to ask for help.
Instinctively, I knew my family couldn’t and wouldn’t offer me the support I needed, so within a few days I asked to be reviewed for public assistance. Other than that, I just tried to reconcile my faith and allow my mind to accept my new reality, and rest.
MC: You were a man of a deep Christian faith before your captivity. Did this entire experience modify, from your point of view, your personal faith in any appreciable way?
AG: My faith was certainly tested throughout the ordeal. As I said in the autobiography, I entreated whichever God “answered by fire” – meaning ‘heard my prayers.’
My faith is still within the Christian tradition of my youth, and yet I appreciate all faiths in which love, respect for humanity, and personal growth are tenets.
I accept a universal term for God, whom no one can claim to fully know or understand, just like the expanse of the universe.
MC: There is actually a Wikipedia entry on Americans detained in North Korea, and it pegs your captivity there at 213 days. In exchange for this remarkably long captivity, and all that went through while a captive, you were given an inside look at what has to be the single most mysterious, closed, and hidden nation on earth. And one in deep need of human rights and civil rights assistance due to the restrictions and privations its populace is subject to.
What do you want to do with this special insight you have? If you could work with the U.S. government, or with a private NGO, or even a philanthropist like John Moores, and pursue any type of project related to the human rights situation in North Korea—or anywhere for that matter—what would it be?
AG: I see myself a teacher, a humanitarian, and one who desires to inspire. I wish I had the means and the prestige one needs to be involved in any humanitarian effort outside the U.S.
If given the legal chance I would re-enter North Korea to do the work I desired.
I do feel the people I met while in captivity were given a chance to reevaluate their perception of America and Americans.
I wish that for all the nations where injustices arise, including America.
MC: Since your rescue, have you been able to make contact with some of the other Americans, starting with Robert Park, who have also been held captive there? Do you want to communicate with the other American captives about your individual experiences?
AG: I have not seen or heard from Robert Park since my return. I don’t have any particular desire to communicate with other survivors. One of the main reasons I wrote my autobiography was to distance myself from the experience I was reliving every day in my head. Writing was a form of therapy which allowed that to me. Still, I grieve with everyone who has survived any experience like mine.
MC. Were you left with any way to send communication back to some of the individual North Koreans you met during your captivity—the ones you have singled out as being kind and friendly to you as the “captive American.”
AG: I have kept in contact with Johan Eidman of the Swedish Embassy. Only, after my return, he was promoted to a position in Brussels.
Otherwise, no. I’m actually afraid to put any of the individual North Koreans who helped me in jeopardy.
MC: Have you had any setbacks or frustrations since your return, in terms of people you wanted to communicate with, projects you wanted to pursue, or the opposite, people or members of the public who were annoying or harassing you—now that you are famous!—whom you just wanted to leave you be?
AG: Of course I have had setbacks and frustrations. At first, absolutely no one in my family reached out to hear my story.
Only after publishing my autobiography did some members of my family inform me they were told not to do so.
I still have issues with anxiety, so I am mostly a recluse.
I recently attended an alumni event here in Boston where people are still curious, but mostly I’m sensitive to the prospect that people will think I’m an idiot for entering North Korea in the first place.
I wouldn’t say I am famous, and really don’t have any desire to be.
I would just like to live my life peacefully and help people any way I can, which is why I volunteer at a local place, “The Home for Little Wanderers” thrift shop.
MC: Will you be an activist in the future? Will you involve yourself in future campaigns to free other prisoners of conscience who are held by foreign political regimes for show or other geopolitical purposes?
AG: I am an activist.
If I see or feel any sort of injustice, even if I can’t physically be involved, my emotions and prayers are there, and letters are sent in my stead.
While Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were still imprisoned in North Korea, I sent my first and only blog or tweet, which has since been rescinded.
It stated that “if no one else was willing to go to Korea to secure their release, then I am willing.”