Jimmy Carter’s Trip to North Korea Raises Concerns About ‘Freelance Diplomacy’

By Patrick Goodenough | August 26, 2010 | 4:24 AM EDT

Kim Yong-nam and former President Jimmy Carter shake hands at Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

(CNSNews.com)– Former President Jimmy Carter, whose trip to North Korea has sparked speculation that he may indulge in unofficial diplomacy on the nuclear issue, has believed for years that sanctions are counterproductive and that the U.S. should engage the Stalinist regime in direct, high-level talks.
Carter also blames President Bush for the 2002 collapse of a denuclearization agreement which he (Carter) helped broker the last time he visited Pyongyang in 1994. The Bush State Department attributed its unraveling to North Korea’s admission that it had been cheating on the deal by enriching uranium.
Carter arrived in the North Korean capital Wednesday on what the administration called a “private humanitarian mission” aimed at securing the release of Aijalon Gomes, an American sentenced to eight years’ hard labor after he crossed the border from China in January.
But, as happened when former President Bill Clinton made a similar trip a year ago – to bring home two jailed American journalists – the fact that Carter was met at the airport by Pyongyang’s top nuclear envoy indicated to observers that Kim Jong-il hopes the visit will achieve more.
In the event, Clinton’s visit brought no breakthrough in the nuclear standoff. Talks remain stalled, and relations between North Korea and the outside world have worsened as a result of the sinking last March of a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan. An investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for the incident, which killed 46 sailors.
Carter’s visit Wednesday at Kim’s invitation has raised expectations, again, that the reclusive and reportedly ailing leader may be looking for a way out of the impasse. (It is not clear whether Carter will meet with Kim; South Korean government officials said Thursday the North Korean leader was believed to be traveling to China.)

Former President Jimmy Carter meets North Korea's No. 2 Kim Yong-nam in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Unlike Clinton, Carter is not making the trip for the first time. In June 1994 he went as an unofficial envoy in a bid to defuse a crisis sparked by then leader Kim Il-sung’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Carter’s efforts then laid the groundwork for the Agreed Framework which was signed four months later – an agreement under which North Korea agreed to mothball its plutonium-based nuclear reactor and admit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor the freeze, in return for U.S. heavy fuel shipments and the provision of alternative energy supplies.
Opposes sanctions, wants direct talks
Despite that achievement, the visit and its aftermath were far from smooth. Published insider accounts and news reports on his mission make clear that Carter angered many in the Clinton administration by going beyond his instructions and prematurely announcing terms of a deal on live television, leading to confusion in particular on the issue of whether the U.S. was dropping plans to impose sanctions.
Carter at the time argued that sanctions would backfire and only make Pyongyang more intransigent. He still holds that position 16 years later.
During a visit to South Korea earlier this year, Carter said sanctions against the North were counterproductive and called for “unrestrained direct talks” between the U.S. and North Korean governments.
He also blamed Bush for the failure of the Agreed Framework which he had helped bring into being.
“[In 2002] President George W. Bush condemned North-South reconciliation, branded North Korea as an ‘axis of evil,’ and threatening military action,” Carter said in a speech at Korea University in Seoul on March 23.
“The North reacted by expelling IAEA inspectors, disconnecting surveillance cameras, and withdrawing as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
In a “trip report” released after the Seoul visit, Carter repeated the allegation.
The agreement that he had negotiated in Pyongyang in 1994, he wrote, “was put into formal terms under President Bill Clinton, but abandoned by President George W. Bush. The North Koreans reacted by resuming enrichment of their spent fuel rods and now have enough plutonium for perhaps ten explosive charges.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il photographed during a visit to China on Monday, May 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

In contrast to that description of events, the State Department in late 2002 reported that, during a meeting in Pyongyang in October, then-Assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly had confronted the North Koreans with evidence that it has been pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program – another route to building a nuclear weapon – in violation of the Agreed Framework.
(The State Department said the covert activity had been underway for several years already – well before Bush in his 2002 State of the Union called North Korea part of an “axis of evil” threatening to world peace.)
The U.S. officials at that October meeting said North Korea admitted to having the clandestine program; Pyongyang denied making the admission.
The Agreed Framework then started to fall apart, with the U.S. suspending heavy fuel shipments in November, North Korea expelling the inspectors and resuming activities at the reactor and its reprocessing plant in December, and withdrawing from the NPT in January.
The ensuing crisis eventually led to the development of the “six-party” talks, which ran periodically from late 2003 until the end of 2008, and have been stalled ever since. Resumption of the talks was being discussed early this year when the Cheonan sinking set back progress.
‘May be tempted to go rogue’
Ironically, Kelly’s momentous October 2002 meeting with North Korean officials in Pyongyang came just a week before Carter was named winner of the Nobel peace prize for achievements including “untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner at a press briefing Wednesday sidestepped a number of questions about Carter’s current trip, saying he did not want to say anything that could jeopardize the success of the “private humanitarian mission.”
“Obviously, it’s his trip, his agenda, so I’m not going to get into details,” he said. “I’m not aware of any contacts he had with the State Department prior to the trip.”
Asked whether Carter carried any message from the Obama administration, Toner said he did not.
Still, Seoul’s Korea Times in an editorial Wednesday worried that Carter’s trip could “send a wrong signal” and be used by Kim Jong-il “as a propaganda tool to tighten its grip on power.”
Bruce Klingner, senior fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, also saw several risks for U.S. North Korean policy in the visit.
“Carter may again be tempted to go rogue and impose his own viewpoint on U.S. policy,” he said Wednesday, recalling the former president’s “freelance diplomacy” in 1994.
“Carter’s vision for resolving current tensions would be the polar opposite of the current U.S. two-track policy of pressure and negotiations to induce North Korea to return to compliance with its previous denuclearization commitments,” Klingner said.
He also expressed concern that the visit may be misinterpreted as a softening in Washington’s stance, and said the U.S. must continue to insist that North Korea meets its earlier commitments on complete and verifiable denuclearization.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced plans to tighten sanctions against entities violating a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last year following a series of provocative North Korean actions including a nuclear test.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow