Carter brings jailed US teacher home from North Korea

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The Independent US

Former President Jimmy Carter flew home yesterday from North Korea bringing with him a jailed American citizen – but apparently without having met the country's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, embroiled in critical manoeuvres to secure the succession of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Mr Carter's plane was due to arrive in the early afternoon in Boston, home town of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, the 30-year-old teacher sentenced to eight years' hard labour for crossing illegally from China into North Korea earlier this year. Mr Gomes, a Christian, apparently entered the country in support of Robert Park, also a Christian, who crossed the border from China in December to raise awareness of the conditions in the country's prison camps.

Mr Carter is himself an evangelical Christian. Television pictures showed Mr Gomez looking thin but relieved as he embraced Mr Carter before boarding his plane yesterday.

According to the North's official media, Mr Kim "leniently granted" the former president's request for Mr Gomes' release. However, unlike former president Bill Clinton during a similar "humanitarian" mission in August 2009 to win freedom for two jailed US journalists, Mr Carter was not granted an audience with the Great Leader.

Instead he had to make do with Kim Yong-nam, one of Pyongyang's top officials, and Kim Gye-gwan, the North's chief nuclear negotiator. Both are said to have conveyed the country's willingness to re-enter the long-stalled six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Kim himself, however, appears to have deemed it more important to make a sudden trip to Beijing, his second this year after an earlier visit in May, than to play host to Mr Carter.

As usual the Chinese media made no mention of the event, but some South Korean reports said Mr Kim, believed to have suffered a serious heart attack in 2008, was accompanied by his son. If so, it is likely the father was trying to secure the blessing of North Korea's most important – indeed practically sole – patron for the proposed transition.

The younger Kim's elevation to a senior post in the ruling hierarchy could be ratified at next month's conference in Pyongyang of the ruling Working Party, the first of its kind since 1966.

The conference comes amid food shortages and new difficulties for the North's ever-enfeebled economy, as well as continuing severe tensions between the two Koreas after the North sunk a South Korean warship last March, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

In response the South and the US have been conducting naval manoeuvres off the North Korean coast, drawing dire threats of retaliation from Pyongyang. Even though it did not include a meeting with Kim Jong-il in person, Mr Carter's 24-hour visit may thus have been a signal that the North does not want the confrontation to escalate out of control.

According to the North Korean media, Mr Gomes attempted to commit suicide while detained, and the State Department has confirmed that a delegation made a secret but unsuccessful visit to Pyongyang earlier this month to try and win his release.