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Carter arrives in North Korea

Arriving on a private jet with little fanfare, former President Carter landed Wednesday in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on a mission to win the release of an American held by Kim Jong Il’s isolationist regime.

Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, were met at the airport by top North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

Carter is seeking the release of 30-year-old Boston-native Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a former English teacher in South Korea sentenced to eight years in prison for entering the country from China in January.

North Korea’s state-run media reported in July that Gomes had tried to commit suicide.

Carter was expected to stay in Pyongyang overnight and return to the U.S. on Thursday with Gomes, said U.S. officials, who stressed that Carter was on a private humanitarian mission.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley was tight-lipped before Carter’s arrival.

“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 in Washington.

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 has insisted that Carter limit the talks to Gomes’ release.

Carter’s visit comes amid tensions on the Korean peninsula following the March sinking of a South Korean warship, which has been blamed on a North Korean torpedo. North Korea denies involvement in the incident that killed 46 South Korean crewmen.

The trip is Carter’s first to North Korea since 1994, when he met with then-leader Kim Il Sung and helped set the tone for a later breakthrough in nuclear talks.

The ex-president’s effort comes a year after former President Clinton met with Kim Jong Il to win the release of two U.S. journalists who had also been sentenced to prison for illegally entering from China.

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

john.glionna@latimes.com


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