SEOUL, South Korea — Former President Jimmy Carter left North Korea on Friday with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an American who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally entering the country, the Carter Center said. Mr. Gomes was granted amnesty by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, the Carter Center said in an e-mail. Mr. Gomes, 31, and Mr. Carter boarded a plane at the Pyongyang Airport.
Former President Jimmy Carter met Kim Yong Nam, the president of the North Korean People’s Assembly, in Pyongyang on Wednesday.
“It is expected that Mr. Gomes will be returned to Boston, Mass., early Friday afternoon, to be reunited with his mother and other members of his family,” the statement said.
Mr. Carter had been visiting Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on a private humanitarian mission to win the release of Mr. Gomes, who was sentenced in April to eight years in a North Korean prison and fined $700,000 for entering the country illegally. There has also been speculation that North Korea might try to use Mr. Carter as a conduit to ease tensions with the United States.
Mr. Carter had arrived on Wednesday at the invitation of the North Korean government, but it was not known whether he met with Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader.
South Korean officials said Thursday that a special train believed to be carrying Mr. Kim had entered China around midnight on Wednesday, setting off speculation over what might have compelled him to travel to his isolated government’s closest ally while Mr. Carter was visiting.
After watching Mr. Kim’s movements for the past few days, the South Korean authorities said his train had crossed the border with China, traveling from the North Korean town of Manpo to Jian in China, according to an official at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Two South Korean intelligence sources who, like the presidential aide, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter, said Mr. Kim might be taking his son with him to introduce him formally to Chinese leaders. South Korean news outlets raised the same possibility.
Mr. Kim is grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as successor, according to South Korean officials. North Korea is to convene a congress of its ruling Workers’ Party early next month, where Mr. Kim is expected to rally popular support for his succession plans.
If confirmed, this would be Mr. Kim’s sixth trip to China, his impoverished country’s largest trading partner and aid provider. His last trip was in May, when he met President Hu Jintao during a five-day visit. North Korea and China usually do not confirm a trip by Mr. Kim until it is over.
News of the possible trip by Mr. Kim led to rampant speculation in South Korea. Possible motives cited by analysts in Seoul included the North’s need for Chinese aid because of flooding and the possibility of a decline in Mr. Kim’s health, which might have forced aides to take him to China for treatment. Many intelligence officials believe Mr. Kim had a stroke in 2008. Around the time that Mr. Kim’s train crossed the border, North Korean news media reported that China would provide emergency flood relief.
With North Korea’s relations with the South and the United States at a low point, “China is the only one Kim Jong-il can go to for aid,” said Kim Keun-sik, an analyst at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “He badly needs aid before the party meeting to make it a national festival, as it is meant to be.”
Even so, leaving North Korea without meeting Mr. Carter would be a notable breach of diplomatic etiquette, the analyst said. “A possible political message of this is that North Korea gives its priority to China over the United States,” he said.
Mr. Carter was the second former United States president to visit Pyongyang on a humanitarian mission in recent years. In August last year, Bill Clinton met Mr. Kim there and returned with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists held there for trespassing in the North.
Mr. Gomes is believed to have entered North Korea in support of Robert Park, a fellow Christian activist from the United States, who crossed into the country from China in December to call on Mr. Kim to release all political prisoners. Mr. Park was expelled after some 40 days.
In South Korea, where he had worked as an English teacher, Mr. Gomes attended rallies calling for Mr. Park’s release. In January, North Korean announced his arrest. In April, it sentenced him to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegal entry and and committing a “hostile act.”
China’s Foreign Ministry had no comment on reports of Mr. Kim’s visit. Two teachers told The Associated Press that Mr. Kim spent 20 minutes Thursday at Yuwen Middle School in Jilin, in the northeast, where his father, Kim Il-sung, attended classes from 1927 to 1930.
On Friday Mr. Kim had reportedly left Jilin and was heading to Changchun. There was no word on whether his son was accompanying him.