Seoul: Former US President Jimmy Carter flew out of North Korea Friday after securing the release of an American citizen and a pledge from Pyongyang that it wants to resume nuclear disarmament talks.
The Nobel peace laureate left the reclusive communist state with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an African-American who was jailed for illegally crossing into the North from China.
"At the request of president Carter, and for humanitarian purposes, Mr Gomes was granted amnesty" by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, said a Carter Center statement.
Gomes, 30, was first detained in January and sentenced in April to eight years of hard labour and a fine of about 600,000 dollars.
The US State Department welcomed his release, while stressing anew that Washington played no official role in Carter`s mercy mission.
"We appreciate former president Carter`s humanitarian effort and welcome North Korea`s decision to grant Mr Gomes special amnesty and allow him to return to the United States," department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
Television pictures showed Carter escorting Gomes, dressed in casual trousers and a white polo shirt, up the steps of a private jet with North Korean officials on the tarmac.
Greeting Gomes` release his family said they felt "blessed" and thanked Carter for his efforts.
"The Gomes family is enormously relieved and happy. We can`t wait to get our arms around Aijalon," spokeswoman Thaleia Schlesinger said.
The pair were expected to land in the United States at about 2pm (1800 GMT).
"The measure taken by (North Korea) to set free the illegal entrant is a manifestation of its humanitarianism and peace-loving policy," the North`s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
KCNA also said Pyongyang had expressed its willingness through Carter to resume six-party talks which have been on ice since April last year.
The North has made similar declarations before but attached onerous conditions to any resumption of talks that have been ruled out by Seoul and Washington.
Pyongyang insists that UN sanctions are lifted and Washington agrees to talks on a peace treaty. In May, Kim told Chinese President Hu Jintao that he was ready to return to the nuclear talks.
The latest offer came just after Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei visited Pyongyang last week, and while Kim Jong-Il is reportedly on a trip to China, the North`s sole diplomatic and economic patron.
The North`s number two leader Kim Yong-Nam, who met Carter Wednesday, expressed a willingness for the resumption of the six-party talks and the denuclearisation of the peninsula, KCNA said.
It said Carter had an "open-hearted" discussion with North Korean officials on relations between the two countries, the nuclear dossier and other "issues of mutual concern".
The North quit the nuclear talks, also involving South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan, in April 2009 in protest at UN condemnation of an apparent missile test.
It carried out its second nuclear test the following month, sparking tougher UN sanctions.
A key obstacle to restarting the talks is the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, with the deaths of 46 sailors, an attack both South Korea and the United States blame on North Korea.
But the United States this week refused to rule out a resumption of the talks, possibly after the UN General Assembly late next month.
In Seoul, the Chinese envoy continued his mission Friday to push for the resumption of the talks.
South Korea expressed reservations about China`s proposal for an informal meeting between Pyongyang and Washington and preliminary talks ahead of any resumption of the nuclear forum.
Carter, now 86, had previously made a landmark visit to Pyongyang in 1994 when the United States came close to war with North Korea over its nuclear programme. He helped defuse the crisis through talks with then-leader Kim Il-Sung.
On another mercy mission last year, former president Bill Clinton secured the release of American television journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were jailed after wandering across the North Korean border with China.
The United States had repeatedly voiced concern about the health of Gomes, whom two American doctors and a US consular official visited earlier this month in a Pyongyang hospital.
KCNA said in July that Gomes, a former English teacher in the South and reportedly a devout Christian, had tried to commit suicide and was being treated in a hospital.
Washington issued a travel warning soon after the release of Gomes, urging US citizens to avoid entering the North without "explicit official permission" or an entry visa from Pyongyang.