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Carter Wins Jailed American Gomes' Freedom


Jimmy Carter has left North Korea and is headed for Boston - with him, an American teacher who had been imprisoned in North Korea. The former president arrived three days ago to help secure the release. Of some significance is who Carter did not meet during his visit. From Seoul, Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

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Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Korean media reports showed Boston native Aijalon Gomes at an airport in Pyongyang, looking thin but relieved. In one scene, Gomes was hugging President Carter before boarding the private plane.

There were no indications that Mr. Carter met with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. Unconfirmed reports from South Korea and China suggest that Kim and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, took a midnight train to China the day after Mr. Carter arrived to Pyongyang. That journey may hold special significance.

Lee Seo Hyeng of the Academy of Korean Studies...

Professor LEE SEO HYENG (Academy of Korean Studies): (Through translator) In the relationship between North Korea and China, this means that China must accept Kim Jong-un's succession in a short time. Back in 1983, when the late Kim Il-sung was still alive, he traveled with Kim Jong-il on a private train to China, where they met the Chinese leader at the time, D�ng Xiaop�ng, for the succession.

XAYKAOTHAO: South Korean media reports that Kim is expected to meet Hu Jintao, the president of China, later today. Lee says North Korea has a lot of respect for Carter, but Kim may have left for China to deal with more pressing issues.

Professor Sukhee Han is a specialist in Chinese and North Korean affairs at Yonsei University. He says China's approval of Kim's son is important.

Professor SUKHEE HAN (Yonsei University): I think Kim Jong-il himself, he knows how bad his health is, and he wants to stabilize his own political regime; he has to confer his power to his son. So given the intimate political relationship between China and North Korea, Kim Jong-il, he wants to debut his son to the political stage in China as the next leader of Korea.

XAYKAOTHAO: The next political stage is next month's Korean Worker's Party Conference. The last time this meeting was held was in 1966, more than four decades ago.

Prof. HAN: This would be the one ceremony to officially nominate Kim Jong-un as the next leader.

XAYKAOTHAO: But Professor Kim Yong-hyun, of Dongguk University's North Korean Studies Department, says it's hard to tell who will actually lead. And it depends on when Kim Jong-il dies.

Professor KIM YONG-HYUN (Dongguk University): (Through translator) If Kim dies now, it is very possible that collective leadership is possible. Two possible scenarios could be one in which Kim Jong-un is the symbolic leader, or one of a perfect collective leadership.

XAYKAOTHAO: Still, all this matters little to those who knew Gomes. Many are celebrating his release. Simon Suh is pastor of the Every Nation Church of Korea in Seoul.

Reverend SIMON SUH (Every Nation Church of Korea): As a pastor, my encouragement to him was that, you know, get involved. Get involved in something that you are passionate about, and then continue to pray, and that God is going to reveal that will to you.

XAYKAOTHAO: He never expected Gomes to travel to North Korea. When they prayed together, he says, Gomes was mostly searching for direction in his life.

Rev. SUH: Especially when I pray about his future, that asking God to really reveal clear will in his life, I believe that he really cried about that.

XAYKAOTHAO: North Korean refugee Kim Jin-gook is part of the congregation.

Mr. KIM JIN-GOOK: (Through translator) When I came to South Korea, I realized that I was hoodwinked for more than 50 years. There are people in the North who are still being deceived, not knowing there is such a different world.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.