Carter heads to North Korea to seek American’s release

Former President Carter was expected to arrive in North Korea as early as Tuesday to negotiate the release of a 30-year-old American who has been sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally entering North Korea, U.S. authorities confirmed.

Boston-native Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea, was sentenced in April for entering the country from China in January. North Korea’s state-run media reported in July that Gomes had tried to commit suicide.

“It is our understanding he will arrive in Pyongyang” on Tuesday, a U.S. government official said about Carter, who was believed to be flying through China. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Carter is believed to be traveling as a private citizen, not as a representative of the Obama administration, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which first reported Carter’s trip Monday.

Carter’s effort comes a year after former President Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and won the release of two U.S. journalists who had also been sentenced to prison for illegally entering from China.

North Korea had offered to release Euna Lee and Laura Ling of San Francisco-based Current TV if Clinton would travel to Pyongyang to negotiate their release.

Pyongyang reportedly asked Washington to send an envoy to discuss improving ties between the two nations, including the resumption of the six-party nuclear talks it abandoned early last year. But the Obama administration wants to limit the talks to Gomes’ release, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen since a South Korean patrol ship sank in March, killing 46 crewmen. Seoul accused North Korea of firing a torpedo, a charge it denies. Washington has sought new financial sanctions against Pyongyang and has conducted joint military exercises with South Korea as a warning against belligerent behavior.

Carter met with North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 to discuss a freeze of the country’s nuclear program. He had offered last year to go to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Ling and Lee.

His visit could lead to more diplomatic contact between the U.S. and North Korea, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

“There’s a good chance he’ll discuss issues beyond the release of Gomes, such as six-party talks and overall peace on the Korean peninsula,” Kim said. “After all, Carter was instrumental in the summit of the two Koreas.”

Glionna reported from Seoul and Demick from Beijing. Ethan Kim of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.