Seoul, South Korea — Former President Jimmy Carter spent a second day in North Korea today on a mission to bring home a Boston man jailed in the country since January.
U.S. officials say Carter is making a private humanitarian visit to try to negotiate the release of Aijalon Gomes, sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a North Korean prison and fined some $700,000 for entering the country illegally from China.
After securing Gomes’ release, Carter is expected to fly directly from Pyongyang to Boston with Gomes to reunite him with his family, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
However, there was no indication today from Pyongyang on whether Carter had secured Gomes’ release, or who the former U.S. leader was meeting. After arriving, he sat down for talks Wednesday with No. 2 official Kim Yong Nam, TV news agency APTN reported.
It wasn’t clear whether Carter — who in 1994 famously had friendly talks with late President Kim Il Sung — would meet with his son, current leader Kim Jong Il.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and YTN television were reporting today that Kim was making an unusual last-minute trip by special train to China, his second in a year to the neighboring nation. A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service told AP the reports appeared accurate but gave no further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.
U.S. official stress that Carter’s trip is an unofficial, private visit. However, visits like Carter’s — and the journey ex-President Bill Clinton made a year ago to secure the release of two American journalists — serve as more than just rescue missions. They also offer an opportunity for unofficial diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, analysts say.
Communist North Korea and the capitalist U.S. fought on opposite sides of the Korean War. Three years of warfare ended in 1953 with a cease-fire but not a peace treaty, and the two Koreas remain divided by one of the world’s most fiercely fortified borders.
To this day, the U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard the longtime ally, a presence that chafes at Pyongyang, which cites the forces as a main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons.
For more than a year, relations have been particularly tense, with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and long-range missile technology, and the U.S. leading the charge to punish Pyongyang for its defiance of U.N. sanctions.