The State Department is declining to publicly confirm reports that former President Jimmy Carter will visit North Korea this week to seek the release of a jailed U.S. citizen. It says, however, everything possible is being done to try to gain the release of ailing American Aijalon Mahli Gomes.
Although senior officials are quoted by news outlets as confirming the former President's travel plans, the State Department is declining to do so in public, saying it does not want to jeopardize prospects for Gomes' release.
The 30-year-old American was arrested in January for illegally crossing into North Korea from China and later sentenced to eight years in prison and fined about $700,000.
North Korea reported last month that Gomes had tried to commit suicide while in custody, and earlier this month it allowed a four-member U.S. team, including two doctors, to visit him in Pyongyang.
North Korean officials spurned a request by the team to release Gomes to their custody, and reportedly suggested that the United States send a senior envoy as it did last year when former President Bill Clinton went there to secure the release of two American journalists.
Pressed by reporters Tuesday about a prospective visit by former President Carter, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said he did not want to harm chances for Gomes release by discussing what he said would be a private humanitarian effort. Crowley said U.S. officials are concerned about Gomes' health and welfare, and are doing everything in their power to see him returned to the United States.
"Where we have individuals incarcerated we support them, and where appropriate we seek their return to the United States," said Crowley. "We've sent a team to Pyongyang to evaluate Mr. Gomes. Swedish diplomats were in to also see him last week. We are concerned about his health and welfare. We have been communicating with the government of North Korea about this case. We are doing everything possible to have him return to the United States. This is what the United States government does anywhere in the world, at all times, on behalf of all of our citizens."
A senior official who spoke to reporters here said the United States is not offering North Korea any money as part of the effort to gain Gomes' release.
Spokesman Crowley, under questioning, said the United States is willing to evaluate a request by North Korea to the world community for assistance in connection with the current flooding along its Yalu River border with China. He said, though, that he is unaware of any appeal for flood aid by North Korea.
Despite its political differences with Pyongyang, the United States was the biggest single contributor of food aid to North Korea following its famine in the early 1990's.
U.S. food assistance continued into last year, but was halted when North Korea expelled members of non-governmental organizations tasked with assuring that the aid was reaching those truly in need.
Policy analysts say a Carter visit to North Korea might help improve the chilly relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, but spokesman Crowley said such an effort should not be seen as a political message to Pyongyang.
The United States, in the wake of the March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea, has been calling on Pyongyang to cease provocative behavior and meet terms for a return to Chinese-sponsored talks on its nuclear program.