Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter won’t be returning home from North Korea on Thursday as planned but has instead extended his stay in the reclusive rogue nation.
Carter, who arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, is currently on a “purely humanitarian mission” to free 30-year-old Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who has been detained for the past seven months.
Gomes, a devout Christian from Boston who taught English in South Korea, was arrested on Jan. 25 and sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor for entering North Korea illegally and for an unspecified "hostile act."
North Korea reportedly requested a visit by a high-profile U.S. figure to gain the release of Gomes, and one U.S. official told The Associated Press that North Korea had agreed to free Gomes if Carter came for him.
Last year, former U.S. President Bill Clinton had flown to Pyongyang to free two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV, who were sentenced to prison after illegally entering North Korea.
At the time, North Korea similarly offered to release their detainees if Clinton came to negotiate their release. The two journalists were consequently freed and the United States later conceded to North Korea’s demand for direct talks.
Media reports from South Korea have speculated that Carter extended his stay in order to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who is currently on a surprise visit to China.
As Kim’s travels are typically not publicized by North Korea until after his return, it remains uncertain whether or not he’d be able to meet with Carter.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have stressed that Carter’s trip is an unofficial, private visit.