Jimmy Carter in N. Korea on Mission to Free Imprisoned American
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived in North Korea on Aug. 25 on a mission to win the release of an American citizen imprisoned for illegally entering the socialist state. Attention is also drawn whether he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Carter's visit to Pyongyang comes at a sensitive time as relations between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington are deadlocked. However, some cautiously have predicted that Carter could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The 85-year-old former U.S. leader arrived in the North Korean capital on a chartered plane to free Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old from Boston who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined an equivalent of US$700,000 in May for trespassing in January.
North Korea's official media reported on the arrival of Jimmy Carter and his party. Kim Kye-gwan, the North's vice foreign minister, greeted them upon arrival at the airport. The former U.S. president met with the North's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, later in the day.
Carter, visiting the socialist state for the first time in 16 years, "shared a conversation in a warm atmosphere" with Kim Yong-nam, president of the North's parliament, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported from Pyongyang. North Korea held a reception for Carter at a state guesthouse, the (North) Korean Central Television Station said in a brief report.
The U.S. State Department also confirmed Carter's trip to Pyongyang. The confirmation came just hours after North Korean media reported the arrival of Carter in Pyongyang and his meeting with Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.
Last month, Gomes attempted suicide out of frustration that his nation was not doing enough to save him, according to the North, which had reportedly promised to set him free if Carter visited the country.
Earlier this month, a team of U.S. officials traveled to North Korea to bring Gomes home but were unsuccessful. U.S. officials have said that Carter's trip would be private and humanitarian.
Carter is expected to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Aug. 26 before leaving the reclusive state later that day.
But the North Korean leader is reportedly visiting China from Aug. 26, according to a senior South Korean official. He said that signs have been detected that Kim Jong-il visited China early morning of Aug. 26.
Carter's trip is reminiscent of a visit to the isolated North by another former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, in August 2009. He succeeded in gaining the freedom of two female American journalists who were also detained for illegal entry. Clinton met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and discussed issues related to ties between the two countries. His humanitarian mission led to the first high-level contact between Washington and Pyongyang under the Obama administration.
Carter's trip, likely to end on Aug. 26, came amid looming signs of regional diplomacy that could help restart the stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear arms programs.
The talks, which include the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and North Korea, have been stalled since late 2008. Last week, Wu Dawei, China's chief delegate to the talks, met with his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang and reportedly "reached a full consensus" on matters of mutual concern. He was set to visit South Korea on Aug. 26 during a three-day trip.
Trying to distance itself from regional tension that has soared since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, North Korea has been seeking to reopen the six-party aid-for-denucleariztion talks.
South Korea and the U.S. have dismissed resuming the talks unless the North apologizes for the sinking that killed 46 sailors. Pyongyang has denied any role in the incident.
On Aug. 25, however, a South Korean foreign ministry official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the sinking and the six-party talks are "different in nature."
"It'd be a stretch to establish a direct connection between the two," the official said, hinting that Seoul may be easing its months-long stance and opening room for a breakthrough.
Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan was more explicit as he spoke in Seoul to a group of reporters from Japan. Minister Yu said earlier in the day that a North Korean apology for the sinking of the Cheonan is not a precondition for the resumption of the six-party talks, instead calling on Pyongyang to reinstate inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and restart the disabling of the North's nuclear facilities in advance.
Focus is on whether Carter's visit would provide fresh impetus for the stalled six-party talks and set the mood for direct contact between Pyongyang and Washington. Following former U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit, Washington sent its point man on North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang in December to urge the regime to return to the six-party talks, only to see the call go unanswered.
Gomes taught English in South Korea between 2006 and 2009. He joined rallies denouncing North Korea's dismal human rights records and reportedly sympathized with Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary who entered North Korea illegally from China in December but was set free about two months later.
Carter, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner who headed the White House from 1977 to 1981, has called on his government to engage North Korea directly and proactively.
"There is no harm in making a major effort, including unrestrained direct talks. The initiative must be from America and South Korea," he said in a speech in Seoul in March.
It remains to be seen how the release of Gomes, if successful, would influence the fate of four South Koreans and three Chinese captured by a North Korean patrol boat while fishing off the east coast of the divided peninsula earlier this month.
North Korea says the 41-ton South Korean boat Daeseung violated its exclusive economic zone. China, which has sided with North Korea in an array of diplomatic issues, has appealed to North Korea to release the crewmen, but Pyongyang has yet to respond amid heightening military tensions with Seoul over the Cheonan sinking.
Their relations have deteriorated in recent years as conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak opposes sending massive aid to North Korea unless Pyongyang makes good on its promise to denuclearize.
"He's on a private humanitarian mission to North Korea, and obviously this is his trip, his agenda," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. The spokesman said Carter did not carry any message from the Obama administration.
Sixteen years ago, Carter brokered a bilateral deal during the first North Korean nuclear crisis that led to the Geneva Agreed Framework. The pact signed in 1994 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 nuclear deal was scrapped in 2002 when the Bush administration labeled North Korea as part of an axis of evil and denounced Pyongyang for secretly enriching uranium in violation of the deal.