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North Korea Releases American Imprisoned Since January

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) poses with Aijalon Mahli Gomes at Pyongyang airport.
North Korea is one of the world's most closed societies, with a government whose actions are famously difficult to predict.

So, when former U.S. President and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter went personally to Pyongyang this week to seek the release of a jailed American citizen who had entered North Korea illegally, there was no certainty of success.

But early today, with little public explanation, Pyongyang delivered Aijalon Mahli Gomes from jail and allowed Carter to fly home with him.

Carter and Gomes are expected to arrive in Boston, Gomes's hometown, later today.

North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) noted simply that "the measure taken by [North Korea] to set free the illegal entrant is a manifestation of its humanitarianism and peace-loving policy."

Carter's own organization, the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, provided what little additional explanation it could.

It released a statement saying that "at the request of President Carter, and for humanitarian purposes, Mr. Gomes was granted amnesty" by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Humanitarian Mission

Gomes, a 30-year-old American activist, crossed illegally into North Korea from South Korea, where he had been teaching English. He had previously been active in protests against North Korean human rights abuses.

Such protests usually focus on Pyongyang's sentencing of dissidents to years of forced labor in prison camps and the government's policy of spending heavily on its military while the North Korean population teeters on the brink of starvation. The country has received UN food aid to compensate for its inability to feed itself for years.

Gomes received the usual harsh treatment reserved for North Korean dissidents. He was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and a fine of about $600,000 for illegally crossing the border.

The North Korean state news agency reported in July that Gomes had tried to commit suicide and was being treated in a hospital. The news alarmed many groups trying to call attention to his case, including Christian groups who regard Gomes as a Christian activist motivated by his faith.

Stewart Windsor, national director of the Britain-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says that many prisoners do not survive the harsh prison regime. He says his group has interviewed some prisoners who have escaped and been able to describe the conditions.

"They've all said very similar things, that the [prison] regimes are harsh, that people either die because of the harsh conditions in prison and are carried out in body bags, or there are public executions," Windsor said.

"Many of the North Koreans that we have interviewed have been made to witness public executions, they have been taken to a site outside the prison, they have seen a judge pronounce charges and pronounce a sentence of guilty, and subsequently the police have put up a stake, blindfolded a charged prisoner, and then carried out the summary execution."

The severity of Gomes's sentence was severely criticized by the U.S. government and made him a new focal point in the always difficult relations between the two countries.

The U.S. State Department said it welcomed the release but that it played no official role in Carter's personal mission.

Spokesman Philip Crowley said, "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."

Carter's special trip to North Korea is the second such mission by a former U.S. president to the country in two years.

Last year, former President Bill Clinton secured the release of Americans Laura Ling and Euna Lee, television journalists who were jailed after wandering across the North Korean border with China.

Talks To Resume?

The lack of public explanation from North Korea regarding why it gave amnesty to Gomes makes it impossible to know Pyongyang's motives.

But Pyongyang made a point of saying publicly today that second-in-command Kim Yong Nam, who met Carter on August 25, had expressed North Korea's willingness to return to negotiations over the thorniest issue between it and Washington.

The negotiations, known as the six-party talks, are over North Korea's nuclear program and many states' desire to see Pyongyang give up its handful of nuclear weapons in return for economic incentives.

The six-party talks group North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan.

The talks have been in crisis since North Korea walked out of them in April 2009 in protest at UN condemnation of an apparent missile test disguised as a space rocket launch. A month later, Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test, sparking tougher UN sanctions.

Over the past year, prospects the talks could resume have only seemed to diminish further. Relations between North Korea and South Korea, a U.S. ally, plunged to a new low in March when Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking one of its warships, killing 46 sailors.

Now, the on-again, off-again talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons, and what it might receive as disarmament incentives, look like they could begin once again.

On August 26, Washington, too, signaled its readiness by declining to rule out a resumption of the negotiations. But when that might happen remains an open question.

Pyongyang, which previously has set tough preconditions for resuming the talks, has shown no sign of abandoning its terms.

It wants a preliminary meeting directly between Pyongyang and Washington ahead of any resumption of the nuclear forum, something Washington has repeatedly ruled out.

with agency reports