SEOUL, South Korea – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew out of North Korea on a private jet today after securing a special pardon for an American who had been jailed in the communist country since January.
Carter and Aijalon Gomes, 31, were expected to arrive in Boston later today, Carter Center spokeswoman Deanna Congileo said in Atlanta late Thursday.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Carter’s departure, saying he apologized for Gomes’ actions.
The pardon “to set free the illegal entrant is a manifestation of (North Korea’s) humanitarianism and peace-loving policy,” KCNA said.
The rare trip by an American dignitary to the North Korean capital took place amid reports that leader Kim Jong Il was making a surprise trip to China. There was no indication that Carter and Kim Jong Il met during Carter’s three-day trip.
South Korean media and regional analysts said Kim may be seeking Chinese aid following flooding in his impoverished country’s northwest – and could be laying the diplomatic groundwork for the succession of his son, who is thought to be traveling with him.
Carter is well-regarded in North Korea despite the two countries’ longtime animosity. Carter met with Kim’s father, late President Kim Il Sung, on his last trip to Pyongyang in 1994 – a warm meeting that led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal.
Gomes had been arrested in January, accused of crossing into North Korea illegally from China. He was the fourth American in a year detained for sneaking into North Korea, a country that fought against the U.S. during the Korean War and still does not have diplomatic relations with Washington.
In April, North Korean authorities sentenced Gomes to eight years of hard labor and fined him the equivalent of $700,000 for trespassing and committing a “hostile act.” Gomes “admitted all the facts,” state-run media said.
Last month, North Korean media reported that Gomes attempted suicide, “driven by his strong guilty conscience, disappointment and despair at the U.S. government that has not taken any measure for his freedom,” and was hospitalized.
A U.S. delegation earlier made a secret visit to Pyongyang to try to secure Gomes’ release. The group visited Gomes at the hospital, but they were unable to negotiate his release, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.