Former US president Jimmy Carter plans to visit North Korea soon on a mission to secure the release of an American serving eight years of hard labor there, Foreign Policy magazine said.
“Jimmy Carter is set to travel to North Korea very soon, according to two sources familiar with the former president’s plans, in what they characterized as a private mission to free a US citizen imprisoned there,” the magazine said on Monday on its Web site.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is planning to leave “within days,” it said.
CNN cited two unnamed senior administration officials saying Carter’s trip was expected yesterday.
The White House declined to confirm the trip, but a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “anyone going would do so as a private humanitarian effort.”
The US has repeatedly voiced concern about the health of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was jailed for illegally crossing the country’s border with China.
Gomes, a 30-year-old former English teacher in South Korea and reportedly a devout Christian, was arrested in January. He was sentenced in April and fined the equivalent of US$700,000.
A US team traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month to evaluate Gomes but was unable to secure his release.
North Korea state media said last month that Gomes tried to commit suicide and was being treated in hospital.
Gomes was “driven by his strong guilty conscience, disappointment and despair at the US government that has not taken any measure for his freedom,” North Korea’s official news agency said.
The Foreign Policy report said Carter would be traveling as a private citizen, similar to a mission carried out by former president Bill Clinton last year to secure the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two US journalists who were jailed after wandering across the North Korean border with China.
Foreign Policy said there would be no US government officials on Carter’s trip, but that the former president was considering taking his wife and daughter with him.
Asked earlier in the day about the potential for a trip by Carter to North Korea, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: “I have nothing I can share with you.”
When pressed at a news conference, Crowley said “we’re anxious to get Mr Gomes home and we have an ongoing discussion with North Korea to try to obtain his release.”
Carter made an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang in 1994 when the US came close to war with North Korea over its nuclear program. He helped defuse the crisis through talks with then-leader Kim Il-sung.
In March this year during a visit to Seoul, the former president urged South Korea and the US to hold direct talks with Pyongyang, saying a failure to negotiate nuclear disarmament might lead to a “catastrophic” war.
“No one can predict the final answers from Pyongyang, but there is no harm in making a major effort, including unrestrained direct talks,” he said in a speech after receiving an honorary doctorate from Korea University in Seoul. “The initiative must be from America and South Korea.”