By: Brandt Siegfried, Chicago Tribune
An American formerly detained in North Korea, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, burned to death Nov. 17 in San Diego. Authorities are working to discover the cause of the fire.
An off-duty California Highway Patrol officer spotted Gomes in a vacant lot near the Pacific Highway. Gomes ran, on fire, away from his vehicle, before collapsing in the field.
The San Diego Police Homicide Team is investigating, and believes preliminarily that the fire is accidental or a suicide rather than a murder.
Gomes’ background raises questions about the actual cause of death.
“Gomes’ death is a most unfortunate one for my country,” the representative from South Korea said. “He was a huge advance for peninsular diplomacy, and it’s a shame to lose him.”
Gomes’ significance comes from his background in Korea. He moved to South Korea in 2001 to become an English teacher. He was arrested in North Korea in 2010 when he crossed the border illegally from China and sentenced to 8 years of hard labor, plus a $700,000 fine for his entry and an unspecified “hostile act.”
“The situation really brought the international community together and forced us to talk out our issues,” the representative from South Korea said. “The Gomes trade should be an example for North Korean-American negotiations now.”
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea to negotiate with the Pyongyang regime for Gomes’ release, which he secured in 2010 after nine months in prison.
“I would not be surprised if a North Korean agent in the U.S. was behind Gomes’ tragic death,” the representative from South Korea said. “Even though North Korea’s army is on the lower end of the sophistication spectrum, they place a high emphasis on their spying program. In 2015, a defector claimed that Pyongyang has hundreds of spies in America at any given moment. While we haven’t been able to corroborate that claim, it’s certainly troubling.”
Any notion of a North Korean assassination is purely speculation at this time, and the San Diego County Medical Examiner is working to verify a cause of death.