Carter Wins Jailed American Gomes' Freedom

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has won the release of an American citizen from a North Korea prison. Boston native Aijalon Gomes had been teaching in South Korea when he crossed illegally into the North and was imprisoned in January.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Jimmy Carter has left North Korea and is headed for Boston - with him, an American teacher who had been imprisoned in North Korea. The former president arrived three days ago to help secure the release. Of some significance is who Carter did not meet during his visit. From Seoul, Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

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DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Korean media reports showed Boston native Aijalon Gomes at an airport in Pyongyang, looking thin but relieved. In one scene, Gomes was hugging President Carter before boarding the private plane.

There were no indications that Mr. Carter met with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. Unconfirmed reports from South Korea and China suggest that Kim and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, took a midnight train to China the day after Mr. Carter arrived to Pyongyang. That journey may hold special significance.

Lee Seo Hyeng of the Academy of Korean Studies...

Professor LEE SEO HYENG (Academy of Korean Studies): (Through translator) In the relationship between North Korea and China, this means that China must accept Kim Jong-un's succession in a short time. Back in 1983, when the late Kim Il-sung was still alive, he traveled with Kim Jong-il on a private train to China, where they met the Chinese leader at the time, D�ng Xiaop�ng, for the succession.

XAYKAOTHAO: South Korean media reports that Kim is expected to meet Hu Jintao, the president of China, later today. Lee says North Korea has a lot of respect for Carter, but Kim may have left for China to deal with more pressing issues.

Professor Sukhee Han is a specialist in Chinese and North Korean affairs at Yonsei University. He says China's approval of Kim's son is important.

Professor SUKHEE HAN (Yonsei University): I think Kim Jong-il himself, he knows how bad his health is, and he wants to stabilize his own political regime; he has to confer his power to his son. So given the intimate political relationship between China and North Korea, Kim Jong-il, he wants to debut his son to the political stage in China as the next leader of Korea.

XAYKAOTHAO: The next political stage is next month's Korean Worker's Party Conference. The last time this meeting was held was in 1966, more than four decades ago.

Prof. HAN: This would be the one ceremony to officially nominate Kim Jong-un as the next leader.

XAYKAOTHAO: But Professor Kim Yong-hyun, of Dongguk University's North Korean Studies Department, says it's hard to tell who will actually lead. And it depends on when Kim Jong-il dies.

Professor KIM YONG-HYUN (Dongguk University): (Through translator) If Kim dies now, it is very possible that collective leadership is possible. Two possible scenarios could be one in which Kim Jong-un is the symbolic leader, or one of a perfect collective leadership.

XAYKAOTHAO: Still, all this matters little to those who knew Gomes. Many are celebrating his release. Simon Suh is pastor of the Every Nation Church of Korea in Seoul.

Reverend SIMON SUH (Every Nation Church of Korea): As a pastor, my encouragement to him was that, you know, get involved. Get involved in something that you are passionate about, and then continue to pray, and that God is going to reveal that will to you.

XAYKAOTHAO: He never expected Gomes to travel to North Korea. When they prayed together, he says, Gomes was mostly searching for direction in his life.

Rev. SUH: Especially when I pray about his future, that asking God to really reveal clear will in his life, I believe that he really cried about that.

XAYKAOTHAO: North Korean refugee Kim Jin-gook is part of the congregation.

Mr. KIM JIN-GOOK: (Through translator) When I came to South Korea, I realized that I was hoodwinked for more than 50 years. There are people in the North who are still being deceived, not knowing there is such a different world.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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American Freed By N. Korea Back In U.S.

Aijalon Gomes, Jimmy Carter

Aijalon Gomes' family huddles with him after he arrived with former President Jimmy Carter (left) at Logan International Airport in Boston on Friday. Carter flew to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, this week on a private mission to secure a pardon for the 31-year-old American who was detained in January after crossing into the country. Winslow Townson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Winslow Townson/AP
Aijalon Gomes, Jacqueline McCarthy

Aijalon Gomes reaches for his mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, after arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston on Friday. Winslow Townson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Winslow Townson/AP

Aijalon Gomes — held for seven months for illegally crossing into North Korea — was greeted by joyful family members Friday on the tarmac in Boston hours after landing in a private plane with former President Jimmy Carter, who helped secure his release in Pyongyang.

Carter and Gomes, a 31-year-old teacher who had lived in South Korea for two years, stepped off the plane shortly after 2 p.m. EDT. Gomes was quickly embraced by his mother and other friends and family before entering an airport building for a private reception. Neither he nor Carter immediately spoke to the media.

On his departure from Pyongyang, Korean media reports had shown Gomes looking thin but relieved, hugging Carter, who had flown to the North Korean capital three days earlier.

Humanitarian Trip, With Unofficial Diplomacy

A spokeswoman at the Atlanta-based Carter Center said Gomes was granted amnesty at Carter's request by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The Norths' official Korean Central News Agency said Carter "courteously requested" a special pardon, and that Kim had granted it.

KCNA said Carter had met with North Korea's No. 2 official, Kim Yong Nam, who relayed Pyongyang's interest in resuming the six-nation disarmament talks — stalled since North Korea walked away from the table last year — and reiterated the regime's commitment to denuclearization. There were no indications that Kim Jong-il, who was making a surprise trip to China this week, had spoken directly with Carter.

Carter is well-regarded in North Korea since making a groundbreaking trip to Pyongyang in 1994 to meet with Kim's father, the late President Kim Il-sung. Those friendly talks led to a landmark nuclear disarmament pact.

Passionate About Human Rights

Friends of Gomes said he was passionate about the lack of freedom and human rights in North Korea and he apparently crossed into North Korea in hopes of highlighting the concerns. Close friend Marius van Broekhuizen said he is relieved by Gomes' release. He last saw Gomes just a week before he was detained.

"He was talking about more personal issues that he had, things that he struggled with in his personal life, but in no way did I think that he would go to North Korea — there was no indication that he would do that," van Broekhuizen said.

In Washington, the State Department welcomed the news of Gomes' release. We "are relieved that he will soon be safely reunited with his family," spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

String Of American Arrests In North Korea

Gomes was the fourth American in a year arrested for trespassing in North Korea, a communist nation that fought against the U.S. during the 1950-53 Korean War and does not have diplomatic relations with Washington.

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested last March and released only after former President Bill Clinton made a similar trip to Pyongyang to plead for their freedom.

Activist Robert Park deliberately crossed into the country from China in December but was expelled some 40 days later after issuing an apology carried by North Korean state media. Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, attended rallies in Seoul in January calling for Park's release. He was arrested in North Korea just two weeks later.

In April, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined 70 million won — more than $600,000 — for sneaking into the country illegally and committing a "hostile act."

Securing Gomes' Release

North Korean media reported last month that Gomes had tried to kill himself, "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, including a consular official, two doctors and a translator, made a secret visit to Pyongyang earlier this month to try to secure Gomes' release. The group visited Gomes at the hospital but were unable to negotiate his release then, the State Department's Crowley said last week.

Tall and muscular when he appeared at the anti-North Korean rallies in Seoul in January, Gomes looked markedly thinner Friday. He was dressed in a white striped polo shirt and dark slacks, news footage showed.

The Carter Center and U.S. officials have emphasized that the ex-president's trip was a private humanitarian mission. However, such visits have in the past provided an opportunity for unofficial diplomacy.

KCNA said the Americans held "an open-hearted discussion" with North Korea's foreign minister and vice foreign minister for U.S. affairs on their countries' relations as well as nuclear disarmament.

Contributing: NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao, Michael Rhee and Louisa Lim; The Associated Press

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