[Viewpoint] The snubbing of CarterIn his meeting with U.S. officials in Seoul during a March visit, Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president, said his view toward North Korea was different from that of the Obama administration. In a public lecture the next day, Carter warned against the repercussions that unilateral sanctions on the North would cause. He urged South Korea and the United States to begin efforts to normalize relations with North Korea.
Carter said what North Korea wants are direct talks with the United States, adding that it was also the wishes of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. When Seoul and Washington propose unconditional talks, Pyongyang will accept the offer, Carter argued.
According to sources, Carter had already gained approval from U.S. President Barack Obama to travel to the North. Carter had planned to expand his “Habitat for Humanity” project to North Korea, and he also intended to persuade Kim Jong-il to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Despite the two goals of Carter’s visit, his trip to Pyongyang had to be postponed indefinitely because of the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26, shortly after his visit to Seoul.
Han S. Park, a professor at the University of Georgia, visited Pyongyang in early July, and the North expressed to Park its intentions to invite Carter, allowing the former president to visit the country for the second time in 16 years. Although Carter said his trip was to free an American prisoner, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, it is likely that he hoped for a meeting with Kim.
According to sources close to Carter, the former U.S. president went to the North with an “assurance” from Pyongyang that Kim would meet him. “Would someone like Carter only go to North Korea for the release of a prisoner? He will [meet with Kim] and talk about various issues concerning Korean Peninsula affairs,” Professor Park had said.
Kim, however, boarded a train and left for China on the day that Carter arrived in the North. In 1994 during the first nuclear crisis, Carter went to Pyongyang to defuse tensions by meeting with Kim Il Sung. The drama, however, was not repeated this time. Three days after his arrival in the North, a smiling Carter boarded a plane with Gomes, but canceled a planned press conference upon his return to the United States to express his displeasure.
Carter’s failure shows the risk of making a hasty attempt to have a dialogue with North Korea and Kim Jong-il. The incident reaffirms that the North is capable of acting without common sense and only for its self-interest.
The liberals in South Korea hailed Carter’s trip to the North, hoping for a grand compromise between Washington and Pyongyang to attack the Lee Myung-bak administration’s North Korea policy.
By now, Carter probably regrets not paying more attention to warnings by U.S. and South Korean officials that his trip could be exploited by the North.
Dialogue with North Korea, of course, is a must. That is the reality. But talks cannot be the ultimate goal, just like sanctions are not. When North Korea shows its true willingness to denuclearize and expresses some sort of apology for the Cheonan’s sinking, the dialogue can take place immediately.
But Pyongyang apparently has no intention to do so. Engaging in talks with North Korea under these circumstances will only repeat the tragedy of Carter’s visit once again.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Chan-ho