By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 6:46 PM
TOKYO - The release Friday of a U.S. citizen imprisoned in North Korea since January satisfied the main goal of a trip to Pyongyang by former president Jimmy Carter. But Carter's mission was also noteworthy for what did not happen.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 31, a teacher and activist who had been convicted of entering the North illegally, arrived at Boston's Logan International Airport with Carter on Friday afternoon after being pardoned by North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il. There was no indication, however, that Carter had been granted the meeting with Kim that had been widely anticipated when the former president left for Pyongyang on Wednesday.
That plan apparently unraveled when Kim took an unexpected trip to China, which experts described as part of efforts 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 ahead of a delegates' meeting next month in Pyongyang at which the younger Kim could be given a top leadership role.
"If Carter got any assurances beforehand that he'd meet with Kim Jong Il, and then Kim Jong Il stiffed him, that raises in my mind more questions about Kim's health," said Victor Cha, a North Korea expert who consulted with U.S. officials about Carter's trip. "Because if he's avoiding meeting an ex-president - I mean, this guy loves to meet ex-presidents. That's one possible interpretation. The other, which is entirely possible, is that Kim may have planned this China trip in advance, and it was Carter's trip that was sudden."
Indeed, Gomes's condition in North Korea had attracted increased attention in recent weeks, prompted by a July report from North Korea's state-run news agency that Gomes had attempted suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department said it had sent a group to Pyongyang, including a consular official, two physicians and an interpreter, in connection with the case.
The group was permitted to visit Gomes, who was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor after being convicted of illegally entering the country from China. But it was unable to take him home, U.S. officials said.
The group's alarm at Gomes's condition made his release imperative, according to Cha. "Because from a diplomatic perspective, if this guy dies in North Korea, one, it would be terrible, and two, it creates all sorts of headaches from a policy standpoint," he said.
According to North Korea's news agency, Carter apologized in Pyongyang for Gomes's behavior. The agency described the pardon as "a manifestation of [North Korea's] humanitarianism and peace-loving policy."
Gomes, who had frequently protested human rights violations in North Korea, had lived in Seoul before his arrest. After his arrival in Boston on Friday, he embraced assembled family members in a tearful reunion on the airport tarmac as Carter looked on. The group then walked into a terminal building without speaking to reporters.
Gomes was the fourth American in the past two years to be detained for sneaking into the North. Last August, former president Bill Clinton, carrying out a similar humanitarian mission, helped to secure a pardon for U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
Clinton was able to meet with Kim Jong Il, 68, who is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
Carter, by contrast, met with Political Bureau member Kim Yong Nam, who reportedly advanced the idea that Pyongyang wants 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. Carter advocates a softer approach toward the North, and before his trip, U.S. officials worried that Carter might try to leverage his humanitarian mission to achieve diplomatic progress, several sources said.
As of Friday, Kim Jong Il was apparently still in China, where he was traveling by armored train.
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.