North Koreans welcomed Jimmy Carter back to Pyongyang with smiles, salutes and hearty handshakes Wednesday as the former American president arrived on a mission to bring home a Boston man jailed in the communist country since January.
U.S. officials have billed Carter's trip as a private humanitarian visit to try to negotiate the release of Aijalon Gomes, sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for entering the country illegally from China.
However, visits like Carter's — and the journey ex-President Bill Clinton made a year ago to secure the release of two American journalists — serve as more than just rescue missions. They also offer an opportunity for unofficial diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, analysts say.
Communist North Korea and the capitalist U.S. fought on opposite sides of the Korean War. Three years of warfare ended in 1953 with a cease-fire but not a peace treaty, and the two Koreas remain divided by one of the world's most fiercely fortified borders.
To this day, the U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard the longtime ally, a presence that chafes at Pyongyang, which cites the forces as a main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons.
For more than a year, relations have been particularly tense, with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and long-range missile technology, and the U.S. leading the charge to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.
The March sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors, has provided fresh fodder for tensions. Seoul and Washington accuse Pyongyang of torpedoing the vessel; North Korea denies involvement and has threatened harsh retaliation if punished.
With all sides digging in, six-nation nuclear disarmament talks have remain stalled. North Korea wants a peace treaty; South Korea and the U.S. want an apology for the sinking of the warship.
Last year, it took Clinton's visit to get the U.S. and North Korea talking again. Some five months after journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were seized near the Chinese border, Clinton — the last president to have had warm relations with North Korea — turned up in Pyongyang on a private jet.
Clinton was cordial but serious as he met with leader Kim Jong Il, who appeared giddy at being photographed next to the former president. North Korean state media paid little attention to the two journalists he had gone to retrieve, focusing instead on Clinton.
With relations again at a standstill, Carter's mission to bring Gomes home could again provide another face-saving opening for contact, analysts said.
Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, predicted Carter would meet with Kim, and that Kim would ask him to relay a positive message to Washington on the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks.
He said the trip has a "positive" aspect, given Carter's popularity and symbolic role in defusing the first nuclear crisis in 1994.
Carter made his first trip to Pyongyang when Clinton was president — a visit that resulted in a warm meeting with late President Kim Il Sung and led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal.
"It was obvious to me when I was in North Korea that there is deep resentment of the past and genuine fear of pre-emptive military attacks in the future," Carter said in a speech in Seoul in March. He said sanctions were unproductive and urged "unrestrained direct talks" with North Korea.
Having Carter in North Korea "could certainly contribute to U.S.-North Korean relations, as well as the nuclear talks," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul's Dongguk University. However, any diplomatic overtures would be small and unlikely to bring about drastic changes in position, he said.
Senior U.S. officials in Washington stressed that Carter was not representing the government but was on a private mission. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington that he could not give details of Carter's mission.
"It's a mission to secure the release of Mr. Gomes. But we don't want to jeopardize the prospects for Mr. Gomes to be returned home by discussing any of the details," Toner said. "So I'm not going to get into anymore details."
North Korea agreed to release Gomes to Carter if the ex-president paid Pyongyang a visit, one U.S. official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Carter landed in an unmarked plane Wednesday. A North Korean girl, a red scarf tied around her neck, handed him a bouquet of flowers, and Carter blew her a kiss before getting into a black Mercedes-Benz, video from TV news agency APTN showed.
He later sat down for talks with the No. 2 official, Kim Yong Nam, APTN said. The discussions were "cordial," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Top North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan and his deputy, Ri Gun, were among those on hand to welcome Carter with handshakes, APTN said.
It's not known whether Carter was to meet leader Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang's state media reported Wednesday that Kim made a field trip to a Pyongyang cornstarch factory with his top aides but didn't say exactly when the visit was made.
Carter was expected to return to the U.S. on Thursday with Gomes, the senior U.S. official in Washington said.
Gomes, who taught English in South Korea, was described by acquaintances as a devout Christian who may have followed a friend, Robert Park, into North Korea. Park has said he crossed into the country deliberately in January to call attention to North Korea's human rights record; he was expelled about 40 days later.
Last month, KCNA said Gomes, 31, attempted suicide, "driven by his strong guilty conscience, disappointment and despair at the U.S. government that has not taken any measure for his freedom."
U.S. officials have pressed for his release on humanitarian grounds, but State Department officials who made a quiet trip to North Korea earlier this month failed to secure his release. In the past, it has taken a high-profile envoy like Clinton or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who took on diplomatic missions in the 1990s as a congressman and later became U.N. ambassador under Clinton.
Gomes' family is hoping North Korea will grant him amnesty, family spokeswoman Thaleia Schlesinger said.
"They certainly continue to be grateful to the government of North Korea for the care he was given the last couple of months since his suicide attempt," she said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.