Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Former United States President Jimmy Carter in North Korea Seeking Release of Imprisoned American

SEOUL, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2010

Carter in North Korea in Bid to Free American

Former President Seeking Release of Man Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison for Allegedly Entering Country Illegally

(AP) Former President Jimmy Carter arrived Wednesday in the capital of communist North Korea on a mission to bring home an American sentenced to eight years' hard labor for trespassing.

A young North Korean girl with a red scarf tied around her neck handed Carter flowers after he landed at the Pyongyang airport on Wednesday, footage aired by TV news agency APTN showed. North Korea's top nuclear envoys led the delegation of officials on hand to welcome Carter, according to APTN.

The rare journey to win the release of 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes of Boston comes a year after another ex-U.S. president, Bill Clinton, traveled to North Korea on a private mission to bring home two American journalists also sentenced to prison for sneaking into the country illegally. A fourth American was set free earlier this year after 40 days in custody.

As with Clinton's visit, reclusive North Korea is expected to portray Carter's trip - coming at a time of heightened tensions over its nuclear ambitions and the March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang - as a diplomatic victory.

The Korean peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and the U.S. military stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect the longtime ally. However, North Korea has made it clear it wants normalized relations with the U.S. and a peace treaty. It cites the U.S. military presence on Korean soil as a key reason behind its bid to build nuclear weapons.

Senior U.S. officials in Washington confirmed Monday that Carter would be traveling to North Korea but stressed that Carter was not representing the U.S. government but was on a private mission.

North Korea had agreed to release Gomes, who was believed to be in ailing health, to Carter if the ex-president visits, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press in Washington. Carter was expected to spend one night in North Korea and return home with Gomes on Thursday, a second U.S. official said.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

However, North Korea last year parlayed the Clinton trip into a diplomatic coup. Pyongyang's state media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and relayed President Barack Obama's gratitude during a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

It was not known whether Carter was scheduled to meet Kim on this trip. No U.S. officials were to travel with Carter, the U.S. official said.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington that he would not comment on Carter's trip.

"We will continue to withhold comment. We do not want to jeopardize the prospects for Mr. Gomes to be returned home by discussing any details related to private humanitarian efforts to get him released and back here safely to the United States," Crowley told reporters Tuesday.

Top North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan and No. 2 nuclear official Ri Gun were among officials on hand to welcome Carter with handshakes, according to APTN. The state-run Korean Central News Agency also reported Carter's arrival in a brief dispatch from Pyongyang.

Gomes was convicted in April of crossing into North Korea illegally from China. He was the fourth American detained in North Korea within a year.

South Korean media had reported that Carter flew to Pyongyang on a civilian jet with his wife, Rosalynn, and Carter Center President John Hardman, but there was no sign of his wife or Hardman in the footage aired by APTN.

Carter has visited the reclusive communist nation before. The 85-year-old statesman made a historic trip to North Korea in 1994 when Bill Clinton was president - and met with then-leader Kim Il Sung - on a visit that led to a landmark disarmament deal on the Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

That deal alleviated tensions but fell apart in 2002 after the U.S. accused North Korea of having a secret uranium enrichment program. New, six-nation disarmament talks were launched in 2003, but Pyongyang walked away from the process last year.

Gomes, an English teacher from Boston who had been working in South Korea, was sentenced by North Korea in April to eight years of hard labor and fined the equivalent of $700,000 for crossing into the North illegally from China and committing an unspecified "hostile act."

It remains unclear why Gomes crossed into North Korea. However, Gomes, described by friends as a devout Christian, had attended rallies in Seoul in support of Robert Park, a fellow Christian who deliberately crossed into North Korea from China to call attention to the North's human rights record.

Park was expelled from North Korea about 40 days after entering the country last Christmas.

U.S. officials have pressed for Gomes' release on humanitarian grounds, citing his health and reports that Gomes attempted suicide while in custody. State Department officials made a secret trip to North Korea in early August but did not return with Gomes.

The pleas come amid a standoff over blame for the sinking of the South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. Seoul and Washington blame Pyongyang for the incident; North Korea denies involvement.

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