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Former U.S. President Carter In North Korea

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

North Korea says former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has arrived in Pyongyang on what's believed to be a mission to free an American peace activist imprisoned in the communist country.

Carter's trip to North Korea is being kept low key. U.S. officials are giving few details of the mission, emphasizing that Carter is acting as a distinguished international figure, not as a government representative, in seeking the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, "We will continue to withhold comment. We do not want to jeopardize the prospects for Mr. Gomes to be returned home by discussing any details related to private humanitarian efforts to get him released and back here safely to the United States."

Private the efforts may be, but nevertheless the release of Gomes could give a boost to the political atmosphere between Washington and Pyongyang. Tensions are at present high over the failure of efforts to halt the North's nuclear weapons drive, and the sinking of a South Korean warship allegedly by the North.

Pyongyang gave a broad hint that it was willing to discuss releasing Gomes when a report appeared in July in the official media saying that the American had attempted suicide out of despair that the U.S. government had not "taken any measure" to gain his freedom.

Hard Labor

The State Department's Crowley conceded in his latest comments that there have been contacts at official level with Pyongyang over Gomes, who was arrested in January for walking across the North's border with China on a personal peace mission and sentenced to eight years' hard labor.

"We've been communicating with the government of North Korea about this case, and we’re doing everything possible to have him return to the United States. This is what the United States government does anywhere in the world, at all times, on behalf of all of our citizens," Crowley said.

This is not the first time that Carter's status as an elder statesman has been used in a role seen as easing tensions between Washington and the North.

He made a key visit to Pyongyang in 1994 when the United States came close to open conflict with North Korea over its nuclear program. He helped defuse the immediate crisis through talks with the then-leadership.

More recently, another former president, Bill Clinton, undertook a private humanitarian mission to Pyongyang last year in which he secured the release of two American television journalists who were also jailed after straying across the North Korean border with China.

That led to a brief improvement in the atmosphere, until the sinking of a South Korean warship in March brought the shutters down again.

compiled from agency reports