- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Granted, I’ve never spent time with any senior North Korean officials or participated in high-level nuclear negotiations, but former President Jimmy Carter’s New York Times op-ed today, "North Korea wants to make a deal," seems so bizarrely credulous that one hopes he had an ulterior motive in writing it.
Carter says that during his recent visit to Pyongyang in order to secure the release of U.S. prisoner Aijalong Gomes, he received assurances "clear, strong signals that Pyongyang wants to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea and on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Here’s how it went:
In Pyongyang I requested Mr. Gomes’s freedom, then had to wait 36 hours for his retrial, pardon and release. During this time I met with Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the North’s Parliament, and Kim Kye-gwan, the vice foreign minister and chief negotiator for North Korea in the six-party nuclear talks. Both of them had participated in my previous negotiations with Kim Il-sung.
They understood that I had no official status and could not speak for the American government, so I listened to their proposals, asked questions and, when I returned to the United States, delivered their message to Washington.
They told me they wanted to expand on the good relationships that had developed earlier in the decade with South Korea’s president at the time, Kim Dae-jung, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.
They expressed concern about several recent American actions, including unwarranted sanctions, ostentatious inclusion of North Korea among nations subject to nuclear attack and provocative military maneuvers with South Korea.
Still, they said, they were ready to demonstrate their desire for peace and denuclearization. They referred to the six-party talks as being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.”
Yes, nothing like a good North Korean death sentence joke to set everyone at ease.
Carter acknowledges that North Korea continued to process plutonium during previous rounds of talks and that the most recent round of negotiations stopped in 2009, the same year that North Korea "conducted a second nuclear test and launched a long-range missile." Indeed, over the last two decades, Kim Jong Il has perfected a game of periodically promising a return to negotiations — in return for aid or a loosening of sanctions of course — while continuing to build a nuclear weapons program. Why is this time different? Carter doesn’t really explain.
It’s all the more bizarre that the former president would choose to carry Pyongyang’s water, since he wasn’t even treated particularly well during his visit. In contrast to the high-profile meeting between Kim Jong Il and Bill Clinton, Dear Leader hightailed off to China when Carter showed up, leaving him to meet with lower-ranking officials.
And as both Senator Joe Lieberman and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have pointed out today, the fact that Carter doesn’t even mention the recent sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan raises serious questions about his analysis of the situation.
It’s also not quite clear what Carter’s intentions are in putting in a good word for North Korea. If he’s urging the Obama administration to resume negotiations with North Korea, that’s already official policy. As Campbell says, North Korea’s recent appeals for talks are already "well known to us."
There’s not really any news here and in the end the piece reads like a defense of Carter’s international relevance after a high-profile snub in Pyongyang.