Jimmy Carter Secures Release of American Prisoner in North Korea

An American prisoner, held in a North Korean prison camp since crossing into the country earlier this year, boarded a plane for Boston today after former President Jimmy Carter succesfully negotiated his release. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, is still on a mysterious visit to China.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 31, had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 in April after illegally entering North Korea. Gomes, the fourth American held in North Korea in the space of a year, had reportedly tried to commit suicide last month. Now, reports the New York Times, he has been granted amnesty by dictator Kim Jong-il following Carter's visit on a "private humanitarian mission".

That private visit, speculated to have been tacitly sanctioned by the State Department who had sent a team to try and free Gomes earlier this month, also encompassed talks with North Korea's deputy leader Kim Yong-nam. The Associated Press reports that he "relayed Pyongyang's interest in resuming the six-nation disarmament talks and reiterated the regime's commitment to denuclearization." Carter also had "an openhearted discussion" with the foreign minister and vice foreign minister for US affairs.

Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, was on a private train that is taking him on a visit through China, reported to include a meeting with Chinese premier Hu Jintao. It is not known why he, and his son and mooted successor Kim Jong-un, left the country on Wednesday night. But Korea expert John Park told Reuters that the move must signal something big. "It would be propaganda coup for Kim Jong-il to meet with Jimmy Carter," he said, "and for him to pass that up, one wonders what the Chinese are offering."

With both sides refusing to confirm or discuss the visit, speculation has ranged from arms, to aid to a blessing for Kim's son and heir, who may take control of the country as soon as next month. Many Korea watchers say that the Dear Leader, as North Koreans know Kim Jong-il, is in frail health after a suspected stroke in 2008. A September meeting of the country's party leadership may be his "last shot at passing the baton," Park told Reuters.