On the second day of Jimmy Carter's journey to North Korea, there was no sign on Thursday that the former American president had succeeded in securing the release of a Boston man jailed in the country since January.
Carter was making a private humanitarian visit to negotiate the release of Aijalon Gomes, sentenced to eight years of hard labour in a North Korean prison and fined some USD 7,00,000 for entering the country illegally from China, US officials said.
There was no indication today that Gomes was free. Carter, originally slated to depart today, according to US officials, appeared to have extended his trip by at least a day, South Korea's YTN television reported in Seoul.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, turned up in China - a surprise trip for a man who rarely travels abroad and was anticipated to hold a high-profile photo op with the former US president.
Neither China nor North Korea announced the trip; Kim's travels typically are not publicized by North Korea until after his return.
However, teachers in Jilin province in northeastern China, a region with patriotic significance for North Koreans, told The Associated Press that Kim paid a 20-minute visit to their school today morning. Kim's father, late President Kim Il Sung, attended the school from 1927-30.
It was unclear whether Kim Jong Il would return to Pyongyang, about 500 kilometers from Jilin City, in time to meet with Carter. Carter is well-regarded in North Korea despite the two countries' longtime animosity; he met with Kim's father on his last trip to Pyongyang in 1994 - a warm meeting that led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal.
Kim's decision to travel to China regardless of Carter's itinerary underlined the desperation in impoverished North Korea, analysts said. China remains the main benefactor of increasingly isolated North Korea.
"It would be good for Kim to meet with Carter, but Kim's priority is to resolve food shortages," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
"Carter is on the back burner."
North Korea also is preparing to hold a rare political convention in early September, and there was speculation that Kim was seeking Chinese approval for the heir he is widely believed to be grooming to succeed him as leader.
US officials have stressed that Carter's trip is an unofficial, private visit. However, such visits, including the journey by ex-President Bill Clinton a year ago to secure the release of two American journalists, have offered the chance for unofficial diplomacy between the US and North Korea.