By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- The United States Tuesday would not confirm former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's imminent trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of an American citizen detained for illegal entry amid reports he was headed for the reclusive communist state.
White House spokesman Bill Burton, however, strongly hinted that the Obama administration will be able to announce Carter's trip to North Korea after Aijalon Gomes, 30, from Boston, is freed.File photo
"I'm not going to comment on anything that could have a negative impact on any private humanitarian mission that might be happening," Burton said. "We obviously think that Mr. Gomes should be released. There will probably be more information on this sometime in the future."
Reports said that Carter left for Pyongyang earlier in the day on a private charter flight to win the release of Gomes, sentenced in May to eight years in a labor and re-education camp, and fined about US$700,000 for illegal entry on Jan. 25.
The U.S. sent a consular official and two doctors to Pyongyang early this month in a failed attempt to bring Gomes back home. That mission was announced only after its completion.
"We will not comment on our efforts to secure the release of Mr. Gomes," a senior State Department official said, asking anonymity. "We will have more to say if and when such a mission is completed."
The official responded to questions about Carter's reported mission to North Korea by saying, "It doesn't appear you need my help."
Carter brokered a nuclear deal between North Korea and the U.S. during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 that eventually led to the signing of the Geneva Agreed Framework. The pact called for the freezing of the North's plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, north of its capital, Pyongyang, in return for massive energy and other economic aid and diplomatic recognition by Washington.
The former U.S. president met in 1994 with then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the communist regime, who expressed his wish to hold an inter-Korean summit in late July of that year. The summit was shelved as Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack just a couple of weeks earlier.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley did not confirm Carter's trip, but reiterated Washington's position that any effort to free Gomes will be limited to a humanitarian mission that has nothing to do with politics.
"I wouldn't say that any efforts are intended to send any kind of a message to another country," Crowley said. "We've been communicating with the government of North Korea about this case, and we're doing everything possible to have him returned to the United States."
North Korea has reportedly asked the U.S. to send Carter to discuss improving ties, including the resumption of the six-party nuclear talks, but Washington wants to limit the talks to the release of Gomes due to soured relations since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, blamed on North Korea.
Crowley's remarks on a similar situation in Iran hinted that North Korea made the request for Carter's trip. "I would say that if Iran offered us the opportunity to send a private individual to Tehran, to secure the release of our three hikers, we would welcome that opportunity," he said.
Carter's trip is reminiscent of the visit last August by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists. The two were caught illegally entering North Korea in March 2009 while on a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors.
Clinton's trip to North Korea, requested by Pyongyang, led to the first high-level contact with North Korea under the Obama administration when Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, flew to the North Korean capital in December.
North Korea and Washington were negotiating another high-level contact to prepare for the resumption of the six-party talks, stalled over U.N. sanctions for the North's nuclear and missile tests, when the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea in March, killing 46 sailors.
Before the Cheonan incident, North Korea had called for the removal of sanctions prior to resuming the nuclear talks. Washington demanded Pyongyang rejoin the talks without conditions.
The Cheonan incident reversed the situation as Washington and Seoul set two preconditions: Pyongyang's apology for the incident and commitment to denuclearization.
The U.S. is also stepping up pressure on the North by saying it will soon announce a new list of North Korean entities and individuals involved in trading weapons, luxury goods, counterfeit money, cigarettes, drugs and other illegal activities banned by U.N. resolutions. The U.S. currently blacklists more than 20 North Korean entities and individuals.
China's chief nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, visited Pyongyang last week and reportedly called for preparatory talks between North Korea and the U.S. for the nuclear talks' resumption, but Seoul and Washington dismissed the report as a North Korean ploy to divert attention from the Cheonan's sinking.
Beijing has repeatedly denounced the South Korean-U.S. joint military drills held and being planned in the wake of the Cheonan incident. China wants the relevant parties to turn the page on the Cheonan incident and return to the nuclear talks as soon as possible.
Carter's trip coincides with the recent move by the Obama administration to make a breakthrough.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton early this month convened "a session on North Korea where she brought in outside experts to help us, from their standpoint, understand what's happening within North Korea, and use those kinds of discussions to inform our ongoing policy," Crowley said. "While we have a policy that we're executing, we're looking to see are there other factors, other issues taken into account, are there other options that have not been considered before."
The Obama administration has reportedly for months refused to give a green light to requests by Senator John Kelly (D-Ma), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to visit Pyongyang, in order not to send the wrong signal to North Korea.
Speaking in an interview with MSNBC, Richardson said, "I'm glad the administration is considering this step by President Carter because he's well thought of. He went there in the '90s and was able to negotiate a nuclear agreement that was later ratified by the Clinton administration."
Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, does not expect Carter's trip to Pyongyang to lead to a breakthrough, citing lack of interest by the North Korean leadership "at this time in following the policies we want them to follow."
"A visit by another former U.S. President would have the usual result of handing Kim Jong-il a propaganda victory at home," he said. "The North Korean media will play it as an American leader humbly coming to beg a favor from the Dear Leader."
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, said he was "cautiously optimistic."
"This is an opportunity for a high-ranking American -- in North Korean eyes - to resolve one outstanding problem in bilateral relations and talk about possible ways out of the current Cheonan impasse," Feffer said. "Carter is held in high regard in Pyongyang - and the North Koreans may well take this opportunity to make a more robust offer.
"But Washington should be prepared as well to move away from its containment approach and rethink engagement. Jimmy Carter is the perfect intermediary for such a rethink even if he doesn't have much political clout in Washington," he said.
Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, also saw chances of a breakthrough.
"If Kim Jong-il were to utilize Carter's second visit as a means by which to publicly redirect the trajectory of the U.S.-DPRK relationship from confrontation to negotiation by recommitting to denuclearization, Carter's visit could play a significant role in reviving implementation of the six party joint statement," he said.
"Although the Carter visit might allow Kim Jong-il to make such a shift, the opportunity to use the visit in such a manner or even to improve inter-Korean relations as in 1994 will depend on Kim Jong-il."
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