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North Korea releases American to Jimmy Carter with a message - and a snub

Jimmy Carter left North Korea with American Aijalon Gomes and a message that Kim Jong-il wants to resume six-party talks, even if he didn't want to talk to Carter.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / August 27, 2010

Jimmy Carter and Aijalon Gomes hug as they prepare to leave North Korea from Pyongyang Friday. Gomes, a US citizen, was freed after nearly seven months jailed in North Korea.

Kyodo News/AP


Seoul, South Korea

Former President Jimmy Carter flew teacher-preacher Aijalon Gomes from North Korea to Boston on Friday after apparently waiting three days for North Korea’s "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il to honor him with a face-to-face meeting.

Instead, Kim’s second in command, Kim Yong Nam, received Mr. Carter in a ceremony on Wednesday night, after which he and his group spent a full day and one extra night in Pyongyang. The experience was evidently unscripted, and how they spent their time remains a mystery.

“Carter is probably disappointed he did not see Kim Jong-il,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister and one-time ambassador to the US, “but he did not come back emptyhanded."

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TV images show Carter flashing his trademark grin as he bade farewell to his hosts and betraying no sign of the frustration he may have experienced when he learned Thursday morning that Mr. Kim had already left by armored train for Jilin Province in northeastern China.

“That was an intended snub,” says Shim Jae-hoon, a longtime analyst of North Korean affairs for magazines and think tanks.

The Carter Center did betray its disappointment in the wording of a three-sentence announcement of the departure that offered no thanks or appreciation for the reception in Pyongyang or Gomes’s release. The statement simply said that Kim had “granted amnesty” to Gomes “at the request of President Carter, and for humanitarian purposes. “ The statement also noted that Gomes had been imprisoned in January and “sentenced to eight years of hard labor with a fine of about $600,000 for the crime of illegal entry into North Korea.”

There was no indication who paid the fine, or how, but the clear inference was that North Korean authorities had gotten the money before Gomes’s departure. Nor is it yet known who chartered or paid for the jet that carried Carter and his entourage to Pyongyang on Wednesday.

Mr. Gomes, looking fit in a short-sleeved light blue polo shirt, embraced Mr. Carter on the tarmac of Sunan Airport outside Pyongyang before climbing up the stairway onto the private jet that flew him home to Boston and a reunion with his mother and other family members.