Carter flies out on North Korean rescue mission

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The Independent US

The former US president, Jimmy Carter, is said to be on his way to North Korea to secure the release of an American teacher who is serving eight years of hard labour.

Yesterday, officials in Washington would not formally confirm Mr Carter's reported trip, aimed at bringing home Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was arrested for illegally crossing North Korea's border with China in January.

The US has repeatedly voiced concern about his health.

Mr Gomes, 30, tried to commit suicide and was being treated in hospital in July, according to North Korea's state media.

Foreign Policy magazine, which first reported the mission by the 85-year-old former president, said a group of US officials, including a doctor, travelled to the North earlier this month, in an unsuccessful attempt to win Mr Gomes's release. Pyongyang now seems to have signalled that if Mr Carter went, there would be a happier outcome.

Mr Carter's visit would take place amid heightened tensions on the peninsula after the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul blames on the North. The crisis led to expanded US sanctions against Pyongyang, and joint US-South Korean naval exercises in waters close to North Korea – drawing in turn various dire threats of retaliation from the North.

But US officials stressed that, whatever happened, it did not imply any change in the Obama administration's tough stance towards the North, ruling out serious contacts until Pyongyang rejoins the long stalled six nation talks on its nuclear programme and admits responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died.

The unofficial mission would not be Mr Carter's first to North Korea. In 1994, as tensions mounted to the point that the Pentagon mulled possible military strikes, he helped pave the way for a deal in which the North was supposed to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic aid from Washington.

That agreement stalled as Pyongyang secretly pressed ahead with developing a nuclear weapon, carrying out its first test in 2006. But Mr Carter apparently earned a reputation in Pyongyang as a man who could be trusted.

Last year, another former president, Bill Clinton, travelled to Pyongyang to secure the release of two American journalists. The pair, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were pardoned and returned to the US on Mr Clinton's plane.