Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is reported to be going to Pyongyang this week to gain the release of an American jailed there after illegally entering the country. The State Department has not denied the reports but stresses Mr. Carter would be going in a private capacity on a humanitarian mission without any U.S. officials accompanying him. .
News reports say the 85-year-old former president is expected to return from North Korea with Aijalon Mahli Gomes.
The trip was first reported on the Web site of the journal Foreign Policy.
Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea, was arrested after crossing into North Korea from China in January. Acquaintances here say he may have been inspired by an American missionary who made a similar trip out of concern about human rights in North Korea.
North Korea sentenced Gomes to eight years of hard labor and fined him the equivalent of $700,000. North Korea's state media last month reported he had attempted suicide. A four-person State Department team went to North Korea earlier this month in an unsuccessful attempt to secure his release.
Timothy Savage, the deputy director in Seoul for the Nautilus Institute, a public policy research group, says there may be more to Mr. Carter's visit than just winning the release of one American.
"I think that entirely depends on what kind of leeway Carter has been given by the White House to negotiate. When Clinton went he did pass on a message, but apparently there was very little follow-up in Washington," he said.
Former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang last year to bring home two American journalists who were also jailed for illegally entering the country.
President Carter made a historic visit in 1994 to Pyongyang that led to an agreement for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs. The agreement defused rapidly escalating tensions that many at the time feared could lead to military conflict.
The deal collapsed, however, in part because of U.S. allegations 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, following the sinking in March of a South Korean navy ship. An international investigation blames a North Korean torpedo for the loss of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died. Pyongyang denies any involvement.
News of Mr. Carter's possible trip comes as China makes new efforts to resume multinational talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry says Beijing's special envoy on Korean affairs will visit Seoul Thursday. Wu Dawei was in Pyongyang last week.
Savage at the Nautilus Institute says the timing of Mr. Carter's visit may be more than a coincidence.
"The fact that this is coming around the same time as these other diplomatic moves are going suggests to me that there may be something going on behind the scenes," he said.
The six-way talks have not been held since the North Korean delegation walked out 16 months ago. Besides China and North Korea, the other parties are South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States.