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Jimmy Carter to go to North Korea on rescue mission

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • Carter hopes to secure the release of an American man being held in North Korea
  • The former president is expected to leave on Tuesday
  • The American has been sentenced to eight years at a hard labor camp

Washington (CNN) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter plans to go to North Korea this week in the hope of securing the release of an American man being held there, two senior administration officials and another source familiar with the trip said.

The sources described the trip as a "private humanitarian mission" to free Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 31-year-old Boston, Massachusetts, resident who was sentenced in April to eight years at a hard labor camp for illegally crossing North Korea's border with China and for an unspecified "hostile act."

Carter will travel in his capacity as a private citizen and no U.S. government official will be on the trip, the sources said. They added Carter had contacted the administration of President Barack Obama about the mission.

One of the senior officials said Carter "will not be carrying any message on behalf of the United States government."

Various attempts by CNN to reach Carter were unsuccessful on Monday.

Carter is expected to leave on Tuesday, one of the sources said.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department declined to comment on a reporter's question about whether the government is planning to send an envoy to North Korea to try to secure Gomes' release.

North Korean state media KCNA reported in July that Gomes had tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized.

Thaleia Schlesinger, a spokesman for Gomes' family, offered no comment on Carter's trip to North Korea.

"We are grateful to the government of North Korea for the medical care Aijalon Mahli Gomes has received," she said. "We are requesting the government of North Korea grant him amnesty and allow him to return home on humanitarian grounds."

"We are engaged with the North Koreans to try to encourage them to release him on humanitarian grounds," said U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Separately, one of the senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said: "President Carter fits that role perfectly."

"He is someone in a position to take action as a distinguished international figure," the official said.

Two American journalists -- Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had crossed the border into North Korea in March 2009 and were arrested and sentenced to 12 years hard labor -- were released in August after an intervention by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

CNN's Senior State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.