Jimmy Carter's North Korea Visit May Trigger Cooling-Off Period

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Jimmy Carter was greeted Wednesday by North Korea's nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, which analysts say is a signal North Korea wants the visit to be about much more than the release of US prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes.

Former President Jimmy Carter and wife, Rosalynn, flew into the North Korean capital of Pyongyang Wednesday amid hopes of a breakthrough in US-Korean relations as symbolized by the person who greeted them at the airport.

North Korea's nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan, a veteran of years of off-and-on talks with US envoys on getting the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program, welcomed the former first couple on their arrival at the outset of an overnight visit that the US insists is strictly "private" and "humanitarian."

Although the stated reason for the visit is to bring US citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes back home, that appears to be diplomatic cover for talks that Mr. Carter is now expected to have with top North Korean officials, possibly with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. Mr. Gomes, from Boston, was in South Korea as a teacher and preacher until he was arrested in January after crossing the border from China with a letter asking Kim Jong-il to resign. North Korean media said he attempted suicide after a court sentenced him in April to eight years in prison.

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Carter agreed to go, apparently with the approval of the White House, after North Korean authorities made clear that Gomes would not be freed unless a high-level American came to Pyongyang to bring him back. Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch only that Carter "and his group," whose members were not named, had arrived and that Kim Kye-gwan had greeted them.

The man who was sent to greet Carter sends signal

"Kim Kye-gwan's meeting Carter has a symbolic meaning," says Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University here. "It symbolizes North Korea's intention to shift attention to the denuclearization issue" - and away from the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, the Cheonan, in March. North Korea has repeatedly denied having anything to do with firing the torpedo that split the ship in two in the Yellow Sea with a loss of 46 lives.

"Denuclearization is North Korea's priority," says Mr. Kim, alluding to statements by the North expressing willingness to return to six-party talks that it's avoided since December 2008. North Korea last week received China's nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, in Pyongyang, and Mr. …