Carter heads to N. Korea to seek release of Boston man

Trip is similar to that made by Clinton in ’09

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / August 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Jimmy Carter was to leave for North Korea today to try to gain the freedom of a Boston man imprisoned for illegally entering the communist nation, US officials said last night.

North Korea agreed to release Aijalon Mahli Gomes if the former president were to come to bring him home, a senior US official told the Associated Press. Gomes was arrested Jan. 25 after entering North Korea and was sentenced in April to eight years in prison and fined $700,000.

Carter was expected to spend a single night in North Korea and return with Gomes on Thursday, a second US official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

As was the case when another former president, Bill Clinton, went to North Korea last summer to win the release of two detained American reporters, no US officials will travel with Carter, the senior official said.

Carter spokeswoman Deanna Congileo and other officials with the Carter Center in Atlanta did not immediately return calls for comment. The magazine Foreign Policy first reported the Carter trip yesterday.

The senior US official stressed that Carter is not representing the US government. A State Department official, who would speak only without attribution, said the US remains focused on securing Gomes’s release.

“If and when such a mission takes place, it will be private and for a humanitarian purpose,’’ the State Department official said.

State Department officials secretly visited North Korea earlier this month in a failed attempt to gain Gomes’s release. US officials have pressed for his freedom on humanitarian grounds, citing his health and reports that he attempted suicide while in custody.

Gomes, 31, grew up in Mattapan and is a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine. A devout Christian, he had been teaching English in South Korea for a couple of years.

Gomes’s release has been complicated by tensions following the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died. South Korea and the United States have blamed North Korea for the sinking, although the North has denied responsibility.

In August 2009, Clinton secured a pardon and the release of Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested after crossing into North Korea from China.

Carter, whose historic visit to North Korea in 1994 led to a landmark disarmament agreement, said in March that sanctions against the nuclear-armed regime were unproductive. The North is unlikely to back down from a standoff over its nuclear weapons program, he added, unless the US and South Korea prove to the North’s satisfaction that they harbor no hostile intentions toward it.

While the disarmament accord Carter negotiated eased tensions, it fell apart in 2002 after President George W. Bush called North Korea part of an “axis of evil.’’ top stories on Twitter

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