Former US president Jimmy Carter returned on Friday to a hero’s welcome as he brought home safely a US national sentenced to eight years hard labor in North Korea.
Friends and family gathered excitedly at Boston’s Logan International Airport to greet Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old English teacher jailed in January by Pyongyang for illegally crossing into the North from China.
There were smiles and cheers and tangible relief among the well-wishers as Gomes followed the 86-year-old Carter out of the plane before embracing the ex-president and his mother on the tarmac.
It is still not clear why Gomes, an African American who was working in South Korea prior to his arrest and has been described by colleagues as a devout Christian, chose to enter North Korea.
Gomes, who appeared thin but in good spirits, departed shortly afterwards on the same plane without talking to reporters but his family issued a brief statement of thanks.
“This has been a long, dark and difficult period for Aijalon and our family,” it said. “Thank you president Carter for traveling to NK to bring Aijalon home. Thank you North Korea for caring for Aijalon and agreeing to release him on humanitarian grounds.”
“For Aijalon the journey towards healing just begins today. He has a strong need and desire for privacy, and we ask to respect this privacy,” the statement said.
Sentenced in April to eight years hard labor and a fine of about US$600,000, Gomes was granted a rare amnesty by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il following a request from Carter.
The former president’s high-stakes mission was shrouded in secrecy and confirmation of Gomes’ safe release came only after they had safely departed from Pyongyang on Friday morning.
The US State Department welcomed the developments, while stressing anew that Washington played no official role in Carter’s mission.
“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,” department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon “appreciates the decision of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to release” Gomes and “commends” Carter for his mission, spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Pyongyang had expressed its willingness through Carter to resume six-party nuclear talks which have been on ice since April last year.
The North has made similar declarations before but attached onerous conditions to any resumption of talks that have been ruled out by Seoul and Washington.