[Letters] Mr. Carter’s wrong visitOn June 15, 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, accompanied by his wife Rosalynn, crossed into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea through the demilitarized zone (DMZ). His meeting with Kim Il Sung eventually halted the rush toward a possible full-scale war on the Korean peninsula on the one hand and on the other, announced an inter-Korean summit meeting, which would have been the first of its kind if the 82-year-old Great Leader hadn’t suddenly died of a massive heart attack. With Kim’s death, Mr. Carter’s historic mission as a peace broker also vaporized.
The Nobel Peace Laureate’s second visit as a private citizen was made in August, 2010 to win the release of Aijalon Gomes, a 30-year-old American who had been sentenced to eight years’ hard labour for illegally crossing the North’s border from China in January, 2010. Unlike his first visit, which led to a celebration on the Daedong river aboard a yacht with the late Eternal President, Mr. Carter’s naive ‘Saving North Korea’ plan, it turned out, has aborted. In truth, there was a dizzying amount of criticism that the 39th American President, in an effort to find a role for himself in the crisis, had been snubbed by the young Kim, who had travelled into China.
Again, Mr. Carter, along with an independent group of former world leaders, called The Elders, visited North Korea amid a tense situation in the hope of ending the controversy over the denuclearization of the peninsula as well as securing global aid to help with the severe food shortage there. While staying in Pyongyang, Mr. Carter pointed out in his blog that the kind of “people-to-people contact is vital in trying to encourage dialogue and build sufficient confidence and trust between former enemies to allow them to reach lasting peace.”
The frequent visitor to the isolated regime was also busy explaining that the North is prepared to talk without preconditions to both the U.S. and South Korea on any subject. He did not forget to relay the communist regime’s message to the outside world that North Korea won’t give up its nuclear program without some kind of security guarantee from the U.S. Upon returning to Seoul, he reiterated the same cliche and revealed the presence of the Dear Leader’s personal message read by a North Korean senior official. The oral message, it seems, was hastily made for the North to have the former heads of state save face, instead of allowing the delegation to meet with the most influential man in the North.
Carter’s latest visit raised far more questions than it answered, becoming a lightning rod for criticism. A seasoned diplomat called Mr. Carter “a third party,” hinting that South Korea does not put much weight on any message from the North through Mr. Carter. A large majority of people also believe that the blame for the North’s food shortage should go to the irrational regime in the North.
As a key member of the Elders, Carter must be a highly respectful cheerleader of campaigning for the necessity and importance of food aid to North Korea. His unrivalled zeal deserves to be rewarded in terms of humanism. But Carter, who appears to know little about the nature of the Kim regime in Pyongyang, became a headache to his administration. Very few policy makers in Washington and Seoul embrace his views as trustworthy.
Perhaps it would have been better if Carter had assumed the responsibility of a global human rights-related organization, instead of choosing the mismatched path of the U.S. presidency. Carter now needs to know that he is in nobody’s interest.
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Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow, Institute for Peace and Cooperation