Jimmy Carter's N.Korea Mission Was a Success

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University

    August 31, 2010 13:10

    Victor Cha

    Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter brought Aijalon Mahli Gomes back to his home town of Boston after seven months of detention in North Korea. Carter did not meet Kim Jong-il while he was in North Korea, despite delaying his return for one day. Kim was in China meeting with Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, securing new aid commitments from his patrons. Many journalists in Washington and Seoul have dubbed the trip a failure at worst or a non-event at best, given Carter's inability to take the diplomatic initiative of his own as he had done in 1994 in the first nuclear crisis.

    But Carter did not fail in his mission. A few weeks before the trip made news, a U.S. consular delegation was allowed access to Gomes in North Korea. The group returned to say that he was in bad emotional and physical shape, and that if he were in the United States, he would have been put on suicide watch.

    This pushed the issue to a higher immediate priority in Washington. In addition to concern for the man, any potential harm that might come to him (even at his own hands) resulting in death would have created a very complicated policy issue, since he would be the first American civilian to die in North Korea in quite some time. Given the overall tension in relations stemming from the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, this could potentially have worsened the situation.

    The administration went back to the group of senior U.S. envoys who had previously offered to retrieve Gomes, including Bill Richardson, John Kerry, and the ex-president, and basically said that it would allow whoever could guarantee that they could bring the ailing American back. The only one who responded that he could was Carter.

    From the outset, the administration made clear that the mission was strictly humanitarian. Since the North sank the Cheonan, the administration has been focused on implementing two tracks of coercive diplomacy with the North -- a series of U.S.-South Korea military exercises and a new set of financial sanctions. While they probably envision a negotiation track at some point in the future, this is not the preference of the White House at the moment. Instead, close coordination with Seoul about when and where to resume dialogue has been the game plan.

    Carter was told that there was no need for any additional diplomacy outside official channels, and that the administration's strong preference was that this be seen as a purely humanitarian mission. For this reason, no U.S. officials, even at the working level, were sent as part of the delegation. In addition, press statements and coverage were not encouraged so as to avoid any misinterpretation of the objective.

    If, however, you send an ex-president into a tough diplomatic problem, you can never be certain he will abide by the set rules. Carter became famous for the role he played in the 1994 crisis, basically pulling a fait accompli on the Clinton administration in gaining Kim Il-sung’s acceptance of the basic outlines of a nuclear agreement. Undoubtedly the administration must have had some concern about potential freelancing by Carter, but in the end the ex-president's assurances had to be given credibility. The priority was getting the American out. In this sense, the mission was entirely successful.

    Carter's mission also has one very important implication for future negotiations. The North Koreans have made good use of high-level unofficial contacts to try to make agreements and trumpet public statements to put pressure on the official negotiations. Kim Jong-il met with the chairwoman of Hyundai last year, for example, and released a detained South Korean worker to try to pressure the Lee government. They have used individuals like Selig Harrison and Bill Richardson for this purpose as well.

    But Carter's trip and the one by former president Clinton last year to retrieve the two American journalists should have made it eminently clear to Pyongyang that there is now no alternative to talking directly with the Obama administration. Both Clinton and Carter stuck strictly to their scripts of bringing detained Americans home and did not engage in any other discussions besides urging the North to fulfill their denuclearization pledges.

    This was perhaps Carter's most important contribution to future negotiations, even though he did not engage in any himself.

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