Carter gains release of U.S. activist imprisoned by North Korea

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew out of North Korea on a private jet Friday after securing a special pardon for an American who had been jailed in the communist country since January.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 27, 2010; 2:46 AM

TOKYO -- An American activist imprisoned since January in North Korea was released early Friday and permitted to return to the United States, following a rescue mission by former president Jimmy Carter.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes departed Pyongyang with Carter; they are expected to land in Boston on Friday afternoon.

North Korea's state-run news agency described the pardon as "a manifestation of [North Korea's] humanitarianism and peace-loving policy."

According to the news agency, Carter apologized for Gomes's behavior. In January, Gomes illegally entered North Korea from China. He was fined $700,000 and sentenced to eight years of hard labor.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement that "we welcome the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes and are relieved that he will soon be safely reunited with his family. We appreciate former President Carter's humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea's decision to grant Mr. Gomes special amnesty."

Crowley added that "President Carter's trip was a private, humanitarian, and unofficial mission solely for the purpose of bringing Mr. Gomes home."

Carter traveled to Pyongyang on Wednesday, anticipating a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Those plans unraveled when Kim Jong Il departed on an unexpected trip to China, which experts described as part of Kim's plan to build support for a planned power transfer to his son, Kim Jong Eun. Kim Jong Il is likely to call on China for aid and support in advance of a delegates' meeting next month in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Eun could receive a top leadership role there.

Gomes, a 31-year-old activist and a frequent protester against human rights violations in North Korea, lived in Seoul before his detention for illegal entry. He was the fourth American detained for sneaking into the reclusive country in the past two years. Last August, former president Bill Clinton, undertaking a similar humanitarian mission, gained the release of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

Gomes's condition in North Korea attracted increased attention in recent weeks, prompted by a July report from North Korea's news agency that he had attempted suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department sent an envoy to Pyongyang. The group was permitted to visit Gomes, but it was unable to take him home.

That prompted Carter's trip, which apparently ended without a meeting with Kim Jong Il. Carter did meet with another top official, Political Bureau member Kim Yong Nam, who said Pyongyang wishes to resume six-party nuclear disarmament talks. The Obama administration, though, still wants to see evidence of North Korea's commitment to denuclearization before talks continue.

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