August 25, 2010
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in North Korea to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old American missionary who was sentenced in May to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegally entering the North. Carter met Pyongyang’s nominal leader Kim Young-nam and may even sit down with Kim Jong-il. The trip is significant because the release of an American civilian has once again brought a former U.S. president out of retirement at a time when tensions are high between Washington and Pyongyang as well as on the Korean peninsula. What’s more, it comes at a time when the Dear Leader’s health is said to be deteriorating. History has shown that the political environment tends to warm after a former U.S. president flies to the rescue. Why send Carter now and what can we expect from his trip? Click “read more.”
President Carter is no stranger to freeing hostages in North Korea. He did it in 1994, which in effect defused the first nuclear crisis by bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. He is also well-liked by North Korea and has negotiated with Kim Il-Sung, founder of the regime and Kim Jong-il’s father. Carter is also a symbol of peace and has consistently urged the U.S. to engage North Korea with dialogue regardless of circumstance.
However, Carter has been known to take matters into his own hands and he may be tempted to put his spin on U.S. foreign policy once again. In 1994, he brokered a deal to improve U.S.-North Korean relations in exchange for denuclearization, the scope of which was first brought to the Clinton administration’s attention during a CNN broadcast of Carter’s voluntary trip. Unable to reverse the work of a former president, the Clinton administration had to use Carter’s deal as the foundation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework.
Pyongyang may misinterpret Carter’s visit as President Obama’s willingness to move beyond the Cheonan incident and ease pressure against the North. The challenge will be to ensure that Carter does not engage in freelance diplomacy again, especially since his personal views run counter to the Obama administration’s current containment policy, although the door is open for rewarding good behavior.
The Cable reported Carter was chosen because he is not an acting U.S. official. However, Yonhap News (Korean text only) reported that Pyongyang specifically requested President Carter via an intermediary, Professor Hans Park at the University of Georgia, during his trip to North Korea trip early July.
OBJECTIVES AND OPTIONS
U.S. and South Korean officials are tight-lipped on details of Carter’s visit. What’s more, North Korea continues to be a black-box, which is why it is easy to speculate rather than offer concrete arguments based on confirmed facts. Still, some cautious observations about the potential objectives of the different actors involved can be made based on history and present circumstances:
a) U.S. – Private, Humanitarian Mission? The U.S. administration maintains that Carter’s trip is strictly “humanitarian and private,” which were the same words used when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited North Korea to free two American journalists at a tense diplomatic time. Many North Korea watchers immediately interpreted Carter’s visit as Washington dispatching an envoy, but the State Department has denied this.
If, in fact, Carter’s trip is purely a private humanitarian mission as the U.S. claims, then prospects for a breakthrough depend on Kim Jong-il (see more on this below). It is unclear whether Kim will follow his late father’s footsteps and attempt to engineer another breakthrough in the nuclear saga.
However, the public seems to be forgetting that Gomes walked into North Korea with the intention of getting caught. The missionary was said to have been on a mission: to spread Christianity and covert North Korea. To rescue Gomes may prompt him to head right back to the North. If there are more like him with the same mission, and if this become a pattern, Pyongyang may see it as another money-making opportunity since it slaps fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
b) U.S. & South Korea – Nuanced “Exit Strategy?” Until now, the Obama administration’s rhetoric and actions have made it clear that it is willing and ready to forego dialogue on the nuclear issue until after a North Korean leadership transition. Washington will soon slap more sanctions on Pyongyang and tensions are running high with the North having fired artillery near the de facto maritime border after a joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly ordered fresh options be examined out of frustration with the current policy.
To date, Seoul has been firm that it will not participate in a resumption of the six-party talks until Pyongyang takes responsibility for torpedoing the Cheonan. However, the South Korean position may be softening. According to South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, “Strictly speaking, the sinking of the Cheonan and our punitive measures against the North, and the resumption of the six-party talks are different in nature.”
c) North Korea – Bargaining Chip? Some North Korea watchers caution that Carter’s trip will be used by Pyongyang to augment its legitimacy internally amid leadership succession uncertainties and bilateral tensions. The regime is also expected to herald the Carter visit as a diplomatic victory in the face of Washington’s tough stance towards it. This may explain why Pyongyang reportedly (Korean text only) vowed to release Gomes if Washington were to send Carter to the rescue. The trip also follows North Korea’s official media report that Gomes attempted suicide, frustrated his country was not doing more for him.
d) North Korea – Avoiding Responsibility? Pyongyang may use Carter’s visit and dangle the prospect of resuming negotiations as another way to avoid taking responsibility for sinking the Cheonan. North Korea may be receiving China’s help to do just that. Beijing has been trying to arrange another round of six-party talks, and Carter’s trip comes on the heels of Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei’s visit to the North. Wu is also scheduled to visit Seoul and Tokyo this week to discuss resuming multilateral nuclear negotiations.
POSSIBLE OUTCOMES & IMPLICATIONS
How might the current impasse look after Carter’s visit? Expect one or more of the following scenarios:
a) Breakthrough? North Korea’s latest behavior suggests that chances are low for the immediate resumption of six-party talks. Against this backdrop, Carter’s visit may be seen as an opportunity for Washington and Seoul to transition from their current policy of containment to one of engagement. However, the Obama administration has held firm to its two-track policy of pressure and talks: it will only engage Pyongyang if the regime agrees to fulfill its past nuclear commitments and returns to the six-party talks. It has also supported Seoul’s position to resume nuclear dialogue after a North Korean apology for sinking the Cheonan. If Carter’s mission does lead to some sort of a breakthrough, the South Korean public will not allow the Cheonan incident to be brushed over lightly.
Kim Jong-il’s next move is anybody’s guess. But Carter’s visit may be the last time he can take matters into his own hands directly with the U.S. as his health continues to deteriorate. It may serve as a face-saving measure for Pyongyang to return to international dialogue in light of upcoming U.S. financial sanctions that could further isolate it from the global community. The trip will also provide a clue as to whether Kim has the will to take concrete steps toward denuclearization. At the least, Carter’s visit could lead to a resumption of direct Washington-Pyongyang dialogue and possibly among all six parties. Nevertheless, the mission will be meaningless for the nuclear impasse if it does not result in a shift in North Korean behavior.
b) Feeding Bad Behavior? Following President Clinton’s trip, Pyongyang initially engaged in talks with Washington but used them to make additional demands and upped its provocations. If this outcome repeats itself following Carter’s visit, then it will have served to vindicate North Korea’s unwillingness to compromise.
c) Inter-Korean Relations? It is unclear whether Gomes’ release will help thaw inter-Korean relations. The release of two American journalists after President Clinton’s visit led to the return of South Koreans, and the same result is widely hoped for this time as well. Four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen are currently being held in North Korea for allegedly crossing into the North’s exclusive economic zone. If they are released, it could serve as an opportunity for the two Koreas to resume dialogue.
– Creativity and strategic flexibility should always be explored in finding a way to break the North Korean impasse. However, the message should remain that countries must abide by certain international rules and agreements. Washington must continue to prod Pyongyang to fulfill past nuclear pledges in exchange for the other five parties upholding their end of the bargain.
– If Carter’s mission results in progress or even a breakthrough, the allies will need to carefully deal with the Cheonan attack so that it does not become a forgotten incident.
– Given Kim Jong-Il’s ailing health, contingency plans must also be made to cushion any shocks as a result of a possible collapse in the North amid a leadership succession. Seoul’s consideration of imposing a “reunification tax” signals that time may be approaching faster than expected.