A former U.S. president, on a rare and unofficial visit to North Korea, has secured the release of an American citizen imprisoned there. The trip also may have eased tensions on the Korean peninsula.
State media confirm former President Jimmy Carter left North Korea Friday with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was jailed in January for entering the country illegally. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined.
The state news agency in Pyongyang says Mr. Carter "made an apology" on behalf of the U.S. government and pledged that a similar incident "will never happen again."
Kim Han Jung, a professor of social policy at Kyungwon University, says Gomes' release shows that North Korea wants dialogue with the United States.
"I think North Korea wants to escape from these current difficulties in diplomatic deadlock," said Kim.
But it appears Mr. Carter did not meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, although he met with the second in command, Kim Yong Nam.
The Carter Center in the U.S. said the former president requested an amnesty for Gomes on humanitarian grounds. They are to arrive in Boston later Friday to reunite Gomes with his family.
The U.S. State Department welcomed Gomes' release, saying there had been concerns about his health. But the State Department says Mr. Carter went to Pyongyang as a private citizen, at the invitation of the North Koreans.
North Korean media say Kim Yong Nam expressed to Mr. Carter Pyongyang's commitment to "resume the six-way talks" on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.
Professor Kim at Kyungwon University does not consider the comment overly significant, in part because it was not delivered personally by the top leader.
"Whatever Kim Yong Nam told to the Carter delegation, that is not meaningful progress," said Kim.
Leader Kim Jong Il is reported to have traveled to China on Thursday. Mr. Kim travels in secret and there has been no indication of why he has gone to China. North Korea experts think he may be seeking new aid or Beijing's approval of his son, who is expected to succeed Mr. Kim.
China is leading efforts to re-start the long-stalled nuclear talks, which also involve the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Wu Dawei, Beijing's top envoy on Korean peninsula affairs, was in Seoul this week to discuss the issue.
Earlier this week the South Korean Foreign Ministry appeared to soften its position that the talks should be linked to the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in late March. Seoul blames a North Korean torpedo for sinking the Cheonan and demands an apology. Pyongyang denies any responsibility.
Since testing a nuclear device in 2006 and again last year, impoverished North Korea has faced tough new international sanctions. In addition, its economy continues to contract and aid agencies say it has suffered crop failures that put the country at risk of famine.