Print options

August 24, 2010

Carter in North Korea, Expected to Bring Home Jailed American

North Korea says former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has arrived in Pyongyang. He is there to try to gain the release of an American imprisoned for illegally entering the reclusive country.

Mr. Carter whose plane landed in Pyongyang Wednesday afternoon, was greeted by the country's top nuclear envoy, Kim Kye Gwan.  He hopes to return home with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea who was arrested after crossing into North Korea in January.

Acquaintances say Gomes may have been inspired by an American missionary who made a similar trip. Both were involved with a Christian evangelical group, Pax Koreana, which focuses on human rights in North Korea.

The group's head, Jo Sung-rae, has mixed feeling about Mr. Carter's visit.

Jo says North Korea got what it wanted by using Gomes. He says Pyongyang wanted a visit by the higher profile Mr. Carter rather than Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico.

U.S. officials have hesitated to comment directly about the visit, saying they do not want to jeopardize a humanitarian mission. They have stressed, however, that the 85-year-old former president travels to North Korea as a private citizen.

North Korea sentenced Gomes to eight years of hard labor and fined him the equivalent of $700,000. A State Department team went to Pyongyang earlier this month in an unsuccessful attempt to secure his release.

Former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang last year to bring home two American journalists who also were jailed for illegally entering the country.

And earlier this year, North Korea released Robert Park, the American missionary who entered the country on December 25, 2009, after holding him for more than six weeks.

During a visit to Pyongyang in 1994, former President Carter defused rapidly escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula because of North Korea's nuclear weapons development. His trip led to Pyongyang's promise to halt the weapons program in return for energy aid and other benefits from the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The agreement later collapsed, in part because of U.S. reports in 2002 that North Korea was still pursuing nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang's complaints that promised nuclear power plants had not been built.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula are again high. An international investigation blames a North Korean torpedo for the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March. Forty-six South Korean sailors died in the incident. Pyongyang denies any involvement. (