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Jimmy Carter gains release of U.S. activist Aijalon Gomes who was detained in North Korea

By Chico Harlan
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:41 AM

TOKYO - Former president Jimmy Carter won the release Friday of an American citizen detained by North Korea for illegal entry. Aijalon Gomes, sentenced earlier this year to eight years of hard labor, was granted amnesty and permitted to return to the United States, according to the State Department. Carter, acting as a private citizen, visited Pyongyang to secure Gomes's release.

"We welcome the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes and are relieved that he will soon be safely reunited with his family," said P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs. "We appreciate former president Carter's humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea's decision to grant Mr. Gomes special amnesty."

(More: Updated report on the succesful Jimmy Carter rescue mission here)

Gomes is expected to return to Boston, his home, on Friday afternoon. The 31-year-old activist, a frequent protester against human rights violations in North Korea, had been detained by Pyongyang since January, when he entered North Korea via China. Last month, North Korea reported that Gomes had attempted suicide. Several weeks ago, a U.S. envoy traveled to Pyongyang and tried unsuccessfully to bring Gomes home.

Gomes's release came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made a sudden trip to China on Thursday - only hours after Carter arrived in Pyongyang anticipating a meeting with the ailing chairman.

The fact that the North Korean leader made a rare foreign trip that overlapped with Carter's visit suggests the impoverished country is struggling with more pressing interests, analysts said. Kim must build support for an imminent power transfer to his son, and he needs China's help.

Meantime, according to North Korea watchers, Pyongyang is preoccupied with a delegates meeting - planned for two weeks from now - that could herald the rise of Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun. The planned celebration comes as North Korea, cut off from most international aid and battered by floods, is dealing with food shortages and worsening economic conditions.

Those circumstances "make it impossible to create a festival mood for the succession," said Cheong Seong Chang, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Sejong Institute. According to Cheong, Kim's trip to China - his second since May - amounts to a plea for Chinese aid. China's answer might determine whether North Korea can hold its September meeting, Cheong said.

Neither North Korea nor China confirmed Kim's trip; typically, neither country reports such visits until they are over, citing security reasons. But an official in South Korea's presidential office said Kim left Manpo, North Korea, about midnight Wednesday. South Korean officials are uncertain whether Kim Jong Eun is accompanying his father, though several media reports said he was.

"If Kim Jong Eun went with him, that would be a sign that they're accelerating the transition and they're a little nervous," said a U.S. official in Seoul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Because I think it's more logical that you'd roll him out domestically, then take him overseas."

The North Korean train procession stopped Thursday in the northeastern Chinese city of Jilin, where Kim Il Sung - North Korea's founder and Kim Jong Il's father - once attended school.According to an employee at Yuwen Middle School, teachers and students there were given the day off, except for the school president and the student chorus, which had been practicing a song about Kim Il Sung. The school was told to expect two large groups of North Korean visitors, the employee said.

When Carter arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, North Korea's party news agency released photos from the airport, where a girl gave the former president flowers. Carter then shared a "conversation in a warm atmosphere" with Kim Yong Nam, a Political Bureau leader. North Korea gave no indication, however, that Carter met with Kim Jong Il.

Carter had planned a brief trip to secure the release of 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes of Boston, who was sentenced to eight years' hard labor after illegally crossing the border in January. Last month, North Korea reported that Gomes had attempted suicide. Several weeks ago, a U.S. envoy traveled to Pyongyang and tried unsuccessfully attempt to bring Gomes home.

On Thursday, there was no sign that Carter had secured Gomes's release, and the former president appeared to have extended his trip by at least a day, South Korean media reported.

Carter has a track record in North Korea that, according to one U.S.-based North Korea expert, left Obama administration officials feeling at least a little nervous about his trip.

In 1994, the former president parlayed a similar private trip to Pyongyang into a show of freelance diplomacy - meeting with Kim Il Sung to clear the way for a freeze in Pyongyang's nuclear program. Although they liked the outcome, U.S. policymakers expressed unease about the process, which had turned them into bystanders.

The chance that the current rescue mission could turn into something more seemed diminished by Kim's departure for China.

U.S. relations with North Korea, always tense, have grown more strained in the past 18 months in the face of the North's bellicose behavior, including a nuclear test in 2009 and the torpedoing of South Korea's Cheonan warship in March. The Obama administration has adhered to a two-track diplomatic approach, applying pressure with sanctions - more stringent measures are due to be announced within weeks - while keeping the door open for negotiations if North Korea accepts nuclear disarmament.

In a speech this year in Seoul, Carter was critical of the two-track approach, urging Washington and Seoul to take the initiative to hold "unrestrained direct talks."

Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, said the North's domestic issues made it unrealistic to expect any diplomatic breakthrough now.

"As far as the wiggle room for Carter to cut some deal, there was no space," Pinkston said. "North Korea is focused on internal issues with succession, economic deprivation and all these other problems. I don't see where it was going to come from - some kind of reversal in policy with the Obama administration relaxing sanctions or cutting some kind of grand bargain."

In the past week, both North Korea and China have offered signs of Pyongyang's willingness to return to six-party nuclear disarmament talks. Wu Dawei, China's top nuclear envoy, visited North Korea last week. Thursday, he arrived in Seoul to peddle support for resumption of the stalled talks. The United States, South Korea and Japan, however, have all said six-party talks cannot resume unless North Korea apologizes for the Cheonan sinking and offers substantive signs of denuclearization.

Staff writer William Wan and special correspondents Yoonjung Seo and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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