Former US president Jimmy Carter returned Friday to a hero’s welcome as he brought home safely an American national sentenced to eight years hard labor in North Korea.
Friends and family gathered excitedly at Boston’s Logan International Airport to greet Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old English teacher jailed in January by Pyongyang for illegally crossing into the North from China.
There were smiles and cheers and tangible relief among the well-wishers as Gomes followed the 86-year-old Carter out of the plane before embracing the ex-president and his mother on the tarmac.
It is still not clear why Gomes, an African American who was working in South Korea prior to his arrest and has been described by colleagues as a devout Christian, chose to enter North Korea.
Gomes, who appeared thin but in good spirits, departed shortly afterwards on the same plane without talking to reporters but his family issued a brief statement of thanks.
“This has been a long, dark and difficult period for Aijalon and our family,” it said.
“Thank you president Carter for traveling to NK to bring Aijalon home. Thank you North Korea for caring for Aijalon and agreeing to release him on humanitarian grounds.
“For Aijalon the journey towards healing just begins today. He has a strong need and desire for privacy, and we ask to respect this privacy.”
Sentenced in April to eight years hard labor and a fine of about 600,000 dollars, Gomes was granted a rare amnesty by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il following a request from Carter.
The former president’s high-stakes mission was shrouded in secrecy and confirmation of Gomes’s safe release came only after they had safely departed from Pyongyang on Friday morning.
The US State Department welcomed the developments, while stressing anew that Washington played no official role in Carter’s mission.
“We appreciate former president Carter’s humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea’s decision to grant Mr Gomes special amnesty and allow him to return to the United States,” department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon “appreciates the decision of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to release” Gomes and “commends” Carter for his mission, spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Pyongyang had expressed its willingness through Carter to resume six-party nuclear talks which have been on ice since April last year.
The North has made similar declarations before but attached onerous conditions to any resumption of talks that have been ruled out by Seoul and Washington.
Pyongyang insists that UN sanctions be lifted and that Washington agree to talks on a peace treaty. In May, Kim told Chinese President Hu Jintao that he was ready to return to the nuclear talks.
The latest offer came just after Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei visited Pyongyang last week, and while Kim is reportedly on a trip to China, the North’s sole diplomatic and economic patron.
The North’s number two leader Kim Yong-Nam, who met Carter Wednesday, expressed a willingness for the resumption of the six-party talks and the denuclearization of the peninsula, KCNA said.
It said Carter had an “open-hearted” discussion with North Korean officials on relations between the two countries, the nuclear dossier and other “issues of mutual concern.”
The North quit the nuclear talks, also involving South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan, in April 2009 in protest at UN condemnation of an apparent missile test.
It carried out its second nuclear test the following month, sparking tougher UN sanctions.
A key obstacle to restarting the talks is the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, with the deaths of 46 sailors, an attack both South Korea and the United States blame on North Korea.
But the United States this week refused to rule out a resumption of the talks, possibly after the UN General Assembly late next month.
Carter previously made a landmark visit to Pyongyang in 1994 when the United States came close to war with North Korea over its nuclear program. He helped defuse the crisis through talks with then-leader Kim Il-Sung.
On another mercy mission last year, former president Bill Clinton secured the release of American television journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were jailed after wandering across the North Korean border with China.
The United States had repeatedly voiced concern about the health of Gomes, whom two American doctors and a US consular official visited earlier this month in a Pyongyang hospital.
KCNA said in July that Gomes had tried to commit suicide and was being treated in a hospital.