Carter Says NKorea Requested Prisoner Mission

ATLANTA -- Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that he hoped the release of an American prisoner to him in August would jump-start six-nation talks that could lead to a peace deal on the peninsula.

Carter said he worked five weeks to get permission from the White House and the State Department before making the private trip to free Aijalon Gomes, 31, who had been held since he crossed into the country from China on Jan. 25 for unknown reasons. He had been sentenced to eight years hard labor.

North Korea officials told him they would only release him if Carter came to get the captive himself, the former president said in his first public remarks since his journey to the country.

"We didn't have any communication with North Korea, so they called and asked me to come over there to get Mr. Gomes," the Georgia Democrat said during a discussion at the Carter Center. "They said they would not let him go to anyone except me. Obviously, they wanted me to come back over there."

Carter would not say if he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il but that officials there want talks to resume. He said he met with leaders who told him "they were eager to have peace talks that will lead to the denuclearization of the peninsula and a permanent peace treaty with the U.S. and South Korea."

Carter is well-regarded in North Korea despite the longtime animosity between the two countries. He met with the late President Kim Il Sung on his last trip to Pyongyang in 1994 in a cordial meeting that led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal. The North Korean leader died weeks later.

"They really revere me in a way for being the last person who met with Kim Il Sung before he passed away," the ex-president said.

"We meet with some unsavory people, some outcasts from international diplomatic circles," he said. "But they're the ones who can solve problems involving unwarranted war or abuse of human rights."

Carter, who traveled to China a week after his visit, said he hoped Gomes' release would start peace talks. China has hosted the talks since 2002 but North Korea walked away last year in protest of international condemnation following its test of a long-range missile.

"I think they would like to be accepted in the world political environment," he said. "They do some strange things because we just don't understand them."

Carter said doctors determined that Gomes, of Boston, had been treated "superbly" during his seven months in prison and that North Korean officials gave him his own prison cell. He also said Gomes was given his own hospital room in the country's capital, Pyongyang, after he tried to commit suicide, but he did not elaborate.

He did not take oral questions but only answered those written on notecards.

Carter said the Atlanta-based center was forced into a private mission to secure Gomes to fill the diplomatic void left by Washington's refusal to restore diplomatic ties with North Korea. He said he seeks approval from Washington before taking diplomatic travels, but he doesn't hold back once he gets there.

"This is the kind of problem that the Carter Center faces. And in all of those areas, the U.S. won't become involved but the Carter Center does," said Carter. "We go where we wish, we meet with whom we choose and we say what we believe."