Carter on way to North Korea to free U.S. prisoner: report

SEOUL Tue Aug 24, 2010 8:36pm EDT

Former President Jimmy Carter speaks during an interview with Reuters in Juba, south Sudan in this April 13, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Former President Jimmy Carter speaks during an interview with Reuters in Juba, south Sudan in this April 13, 2010 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

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SEOUL (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter has left the United States and is en route to North Korea on a mission to win the release of an American being held prisoner there, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said on Wednesday.

The visit would take place amid heightened tensions on the peninsula after the torpedoing in March of a South Korean warship, which Seoul blames on the North and which prompted Washington to announce expanded sanctions against Pyongyang.

Carter, 85, and his wife are flying in a private jet and not a U.S. military plane, Yonhap said, quoting a U.S. diplomatic source.

A U.S. official had said Carter would travel to the North on a private humanitarian mission to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who has been sentenced by the communist state to eight years of hard labor.

The U.S. embassy in Seoul could not confirm the report of Carter's travel.

Gomes, 30, tried to commit suicide out of despair, the North's state media said last month.

Former President Bill Clinton made a similar humanitarian visit trip last year, winning the release of two journalists also jailed for illegally entering the North.

Clinton's trip was followed by dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington marking an end to a series of provocations by the North and briefly easing tensions in the region.

South Korean media have reported the North wants Washington to send an envoy to discuss improving ties, including the resumption of stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

Both Washington and Seoul have said Pyongyang must first admit responsibility for the sinking of the warship before they will consider returning to the talks.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Sanjeev Miglani)