Former President Jimmy Carter is in North Korea trying to free a U.S. Christian jailed there for illegally entering the country.
He was greeted with warmth by North Korean officials Wednesday at an airport in the capital city of Pyongyang. Leaders in the communist country sentenced Aijalon Mahli Gomes to eight years of hard labor in April and also fined him $700,000.
Carter is expected to return home with Gomes as early as Thursday.
A Victory for N. Korea?
Asia analyst Gordon Chang said North Korea sees Carter's visit as a major diplomatic victory.
"The North Koreans really want official recognition," Chang explained. "It's a very difficult time for Kim Jong Il. He's old. He's in very bad health. His succession plan which is to pass power to his 27-year-old son is not meeting with universal expectance."
"Nothing is going right for Kim Jong Ill. Having someone with Carter's statute come to Pyongyang really give the regime a big lift," he added.
Surprisingly, the dictator is not in North Korea for Carter's visit. South Korean news agencies reported Kim Jong Ill was in northeastern China, where he visited a middle school.
The reports speculated that the leader may be trying to shore up China's support for one of his sons as a successor to his regime.
Attempts last week by U.S. State Department officials to free Gomes were unsuccessful. However, a senior official with the department said North Korea promised to release him if Carter came in person.
The official stressed that Carter is not representing the U.S. government in North Korea.
"If and when such a mission takes place, it will be private and for a humanitarian purpose," the State Department official said.
Former President Bill Clinton also traveled to North Korea last year on a similar mission. He brought home two American journalist sentenced to prison for also illegally entering the country.