Carter in North Korea to free U.S. prisoner

SEOUL (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter met North Korea’s nominal head of state on Wednesday after touching down in Pyongyang for a private visit to win the release of an American jailed in the reclusive country.

North Korean state television showed footage of Carter seated next to number two leader Kim Yong-nam.

“They had a talk in a warm atmosphere,” state TV reported, without providing details of the conversation.

Carter’s visit comes amid heightened tensions on the peninsula after the March torpedoing of a South Korean warship, which Seoul blames on the North and which prompted Washington to announce expanded sanctions against Pyongyang.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and his group were met at the airport by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, who represents Pyongyang at six-way nuclear disarmament talks that have been on hold for two years.

Carter, 85, traveled to the North to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, sentenced to eight years hard labor earlier this year for illegally entering the isolated state.

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

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The U.S. State Department said Carter’s visit was a “private trip” for a humanitarian mission and provided no further details.

“I’m not aware of any contact he had with the State Department prior to the trip,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

“It’s a private humanitarian trip; obviously it’s a mission to secure the release of Mr. Gomes, but we don’t want to jeopardize the prospect for Mr. Gomes to be returned home by discussing any of the details,” he said.

Carter’s trip follows a similar journey last year by Bill Clinton to bring home two journalists jailed for illegally entering the North.

That visit was followed by dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington after North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 provoked in international outcry.

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

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Both Washington and Seoul have said Pyongyang must first admit responsibility for torpedoing the South Korean warship before they will consider returning to the talks. The North denies responsibility for the sinking.

Additional reporting by Kwon Youri, Jack Kim and Brett Cole in Seoul and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; editing by Alex Richardson and Jerry Norton