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Jimmy Carter arrives in North Korea to bring home American

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A child salutes former U.S. President Jimmy Carter upon his arrival in Pyongyang on Wednesday.

A child salutes former U.S. President Jimmy Carter upon his arrival in Pyongyang on Wednesday.

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — North Koreans welcomed Jimmy Carter back to Pyongyang with smiles, salutes and hearty handshakes as the former American president arrived on a mission to bring home a Boston man jailed in the communist country since January.

U.S. officials have billed Carter's trip as a private humanitarian visit to try to negotiate the release of Aijalon Gomes, sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for entering the country illegally from China.

However, visits like Carter's — and the journey ex-President Bill Clinton made a year ago to secure the release of two American journalists — serve as more than just rescue missions. They also offer an opportunity for unofficial diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, analysts say.

Communist North Korea and the capitalist U.S. fought on opposite sides of the Korean War. Three years of warfare ended in 1953 with a cease-fire but not a peace treaty, and the two Koreas remain divided by one of the world's most fiercely fortified borders.

To this day, the U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard the longtime ally, a presence that chafes at Pyongyang, which cites the forces as a main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons.

For more than a year, relations have been particularly tense, with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and long-range missile technology and the U.S. leading the charge to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.

The March sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors, has provided fresh fodder for tensions. Seoul and Washington accuse Pyongyang of torpedoing the vessel; North Korea denies involvement and has threatened harsh retaliation if punished.

With all sides digging in, six-nation nuclear disarmament talks have remain stalled. North Korea wants a peace treaty; South Korea and the U.S. want an apology for the sinking of the warship.

Last year, it took Clinton's visit to get the U.S. and North Korea talking again. Some five months after journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were seized near the Chinese border, Clinton — the last president to have had warm relations with North Korea — turned up in Pyongyang on a private jet.

Clinton was cordial but serious as he met with leader Kim Jong Il, who appeared giddy at being photographed next to the former president. North Korean state media paid little attention to the two journalists he had gone to retrieve, focusing instead on Clinton.

With relations again at a standstill, Carter's mission to bring Gomes home could again provide another face-saving opening for contact, analysts said.

Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, predicted Carter would meet with Kim, and that Kim would ask him to relay a positive message to Washington on the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks.

He said the trip has a "positive" aspect, given Carter's popularity and symbolic role in defusing the first nuclear crisis in 1994.

Carter made his first trip to Pyongyang when Clinton was president — a visit that resulted in a warm meeting with late President Kim Il Sung and led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal.