[Viewpoint] An inconvenient truth about JimmyJimmy Carter, the 39th American president, has a legacy of contradictions and mixed-up views. He is generally viewed as a decent and upright politician - in short, a good man. The 86-year-old former president, however, can’t escape a history of unfortunate words and actions that leave him open to charges of confusion and possibly hypocrisy.
Carter’s presidency, from 1977 to 1981, came at a time when the United States was in a depressing battle with stagflation, which he did little to win. (His successor, Ronald Reagan, conquered stagflation.) Carter’s feeble leadership deepened the everyday plight of average Joes and cost the lives of American hostages in Iran. Upon leaving office, he transformed himself into a human rights activist and a conflict resolution fireman, and he joined the charity group Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for the poor around the globe.
He travels frequently to scenes of crisis and confrontation to negotiate peace. He overcame his reputation as a failed president to become a new role model for leaders after they leave office. He carries out humanitarian work and passionately advocates for human rights.
Yet Carter confounds even his admirers by supporting and overseeing elections in repressive regimes. His good works are questioned for lack of universality and consistency.
Revolution Square in the Romanian capital of Bucharest still has the stale smell of repression under despot Nicolae Ceausescu, who was toppled and executed after a mass uprising in December 1989. A military museum in the capital remembers the fearless revolt by Romania’s angry masses.
In one corner of the museum hangs a photo of Carter and Ceausescu side by side after a summit meeting in Washington in April 1978. Under the photo is Carter’s welcome speech, which said, “We share common beliefs ... Our goals are also the same, to have a just system of economics and politics ... We believe in enhancing human rights.”
Carter could not have been oblivious to the real state of Romania and its people who suffered under a mad dictator. In June 1971, Ceausescu visited North Korea and returned home enthralled by the North personality cult and dynastic rule, which he developed for himself and his family in Romania. His hubris only got worse as he relied on secret police, torture and the murder of anyone who was antigovernment. The brutality and terror of the Ceausescu regime provided the backdrop of the novels of Romanian-born writer Herta Muller, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009.
Was Carter unaware of Ceausescu’s iron-fisted rule? Visitors to the museum have left notes of disgust at Carter’s remarks. “Carter has been distasteful and disrespectful to the sufferings of Romanians,” reads one.
In the summer of 1979, Carter came to Seoul. He clashed with President Park Chung Hee over the issue of withdrawing U.S. forces from Korea. Park responded to Carter with a threat to pursue nuclear weapons and missile development for our national defense. Carter capitalized on public displeasure with Park’s long authoritarian regime to attack and diminish him by encouraging the democracy movement among dissident Koreans.
Carter was harsh with Korea’s authoritarian leader, yet tolerant and genial toward an erratic and self-deluded tyrant in Romania. Human rights are universal, and promoting them demands fairness and consistency. But Carter’s yardstick for promoting human rights was self-made and arbitrary.
In Atlanta, Georgia, you can visit the Carter Center, which celebrates the former president’s upbringing in the American South and his accomplishments in upholding human rights, democracy and peace. For some time, the center exhibited a gift from North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, which Carter received during a 1994 visit to Pyongyang when he was attempting to broker an inter-Korean summit.
The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site is a 10-minute drive from the Carter Center. There, a museum celebrates the truly inspirational life of one of America’s greatest proponents of nonviolence, justice and equality. The southern state of Georgia was once infamous for discrimination against African-Americans. Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which hosts the PGA Masters Tournament, barred African-Americans in the 1970s. Carter kept relatively silent about such rights violations at home and instead sought them out overseas.
Carter visits Seoul today after a trip to Pyongyang with three former statesmen. He was allegedly on a “humanitarian” mission, not often allowed by a reclusive state that has lately been begging around the world for food. Carter, however, reserves comment on the denial of human rights, political brutalities and trampling of liberties by the Pyongyang regime.
In Carter’s humanitarian worldview, what should be the essence of humanity (human rights) is strangely missing. That is why, despite his good intentions, Carter’s activities are often regarded as a bit shadowy and not entirely straightforward.
As a prominent public figure, Carter must become vocal on North Korea’s gross abuses of human rights. If he is used by Kim Jong-il and becomes his cheerleader, it won’t do much for his legacy. Even if he brokers a breakthrough after meeting with Kim and his heir, it will be meaningless without stronger efforts on the human rights front.
*The writer is executive editor of the JoongAngIlbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon