Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Jimmy Carter goes to Pyongyang

There are strange goings-on in Pyongyang these days. First, former President Jimmy Carter arrived in the North Korean capital to secure the release of Aijilon Gomez, an American human rights activist who had been sentenced to seven years hard labor after wandering across the border from China. Then, within 12 hours of Carter’s arrival, North ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

There are strange goings-on in Pyongyang these days. First, former President Jimmy Carter arrived in the North Korean capital to secure the release of Aijilon Gomez, an American human rights activist who had been sentenced to seven years hard labor after wandering across the border from China. Then, within 12 hours of Carter’s arrival, North Korea leader Kim Jong Il suddenly shows up in China for his second visit in several months. All these moves are leading to speculation that the United States is about to slide back to the pattern of engagement and concessions that has followed every other confrontation with Pyongyang over the past two decades.

I think the odds are probably against such a replay of history. But then again, the temptation of “parking” the intractable North Korea problem in slow motion talks has proven irresistible to two previous administrations nervous about sustained confrontation with the North. The Loyal Opposition would be doing the Obama team a favor by scrutinizing its next steps for similar wobbliness.

There are strange goings-on in Pyongyang these days. First, former President Jimmy Carter arrived in the North Korean capital to secure the release of Aijilon Gomez, an American human rights activist who had been sentenced to seven years hard labor after wandering across the border from China. Then, within 12 hours of Carter’s arrival, North Korea leader Kim Jong Il suddenly shows up in China for his second visit in several months. All these moves are leading to speculation that the United States is about to slide back to the pattern of engagement and concessions that has followed every other confrontation with Pyongyang over the past two decades.

I think the odds are probably against such a replay of history. But then again, the temptation of “parking” the intractable North Korea problem in slow motion talks has proven irresistible to two previous administrations nervous about sustained confrontation with the North. The Loyal Opposition would be doing the Obama team a favor by scrutinizing its next steps for similar wobbliness.

Jimmy Carter’s visit looks at first glance like a replay of his 1994 meeting with Kim Il Sung, which the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung, not Carter) used to dissipate unprecedented international pressure in the Security Council for crippling sanctions on the North after it started up its Yongbyon reactor. Japanese and South Korean officials are nervously watching Carter’s trip this time, since they know that the former president would probably like to move the Obama administration away from its current robust policy of sanctions and military exercises in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test and sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan.

The Japanese and South Koreans probably do not have to worry too much yet. Carter did succeed in getting Mr. Gomez out of North Korea, and kudos to the former president for that humanitarian part of the trip. In fact, the North Koreans have made it clear that only former presidents would be acceptable as envoys to secure the release of Americans detained in the North. Last summer they rejected Al Gore as the envoy to bring home journalists Laura Ling and Eun Lee, forcing the administration to send former President Bill Clinton. This time the North reportedly said “no” to a range of aspiring envoys, including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator John Kerry. Assuming Clinton was not going to go twice — and the two Bush presidents had no intention of going — Carter was the only person the administration could send to retrieve Mr. Gomez. (Unfortunately, at the current rate that Americans are wandering into North Korea, we are going to run out of former presidents pretty quickly). It appears that Carter did not see Kim Jong Il, which is a huge protocol slight to say the least. However, the former president did see Kim Kye-gwan, the North’s top nuclear negotiator. The Obama administration states that Carter’s visit was private and humanitarian. The North Koreans will seek to portray the visit as a first step towards relaxing sanctions and returning to business-as-usual.

The Carter visit coincides with a debate within the Obama administration about whether sanctions, military exercises and alliance coordination alone form a sufficient tool kit for dealing with North Korea. Those who advocate resuming “contact” with the North have a legitimate point. Given the closed nature of the North Korean regime, the prospects for further escalation, and the uncertainty in North Korea’s domestic leadership transition, it would be useful to find ways to take the pulse in Pyongyang. The problem is that both Republican and Democratic administrations have a terrible track record of compromising on sanctions and pressure in order to sustain such engagement once the process has started. That is what happened in 1994, when the policy shifted from one of total pressure to one of total engagement. The result was a flawed accord — the Agreed Framework — that succeeded in slowing the North’s plutonium program at Yongbyan, but gave Pyongyang cover to pursue a clandestine highly enriched uranium (HEU) program and weaponization of the plutonium they had already extracted from the Yongbyan reactor. The same pattern replayed in 2007. After the Bush administration mounted an impressive international front to pressure North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang’s October 2006 nuclear test, Washington once again lost the nerve for a sustained confrontation with the North and shifted gears to a negotiating process, fueled primarily by a series of U.S. unilateral steps to remove sanctions and return frozen funds to Pyongyang. The result? Another North Korean nuclear test in May 2008.

The Obama administration therefore has to keep one simple rule in mind if they begin exploring bilateral and multilateral talks with the north in the weeks and months ahead: Do not pay for the talks by relaxing defensive measures such as financial sanctions and military exercises. The fact is that these defensive measures are no longer primarily about gaining leverage on North Korea to make concessions. They are now fundamentally about defending ourselves and our allies against the kind of inward proliferation we discovered with the North’s clandestine HEU program and outward proliferation we have discovered in Syria and now Burma. Does the administration get this? A key indicator will be whether they put out an expanded list of targeted North Korean companies for sanctions, as promised to Seoul and Tokyo.

And what about Kim Jong Il’s visit to China? The most hopeful interpretation comes from China, where officials argue Kim is finally coming to understand the importance of Chinese style opening and reform. But, if anything, Pyongyang is reverting to the hardcore ideological line of the 1960s and 70s rather than reform and opening. Another explanation is that Kim desperately needs Chinese aid to secure a prosperous celebration for the succession announcement for his 27 year-old son Kim Jong Eun. That could be. .. but Kim will pay for that by agreeing to come back to the Six Party Talks; not giving up nuclear capabilities, and that will be enough for Beijing to provide some reward. The third explanation is that Kim is eager to see his father’s adopted hometown of Jilin one more time before he too dies. That is the most satisfying explanation of all, and frankly has the greatest plausibility. It is also a reminder that the Obama administration should not get so distracted by the possible resumption of talks that they lose focus on the big strategic question — what comes after the Kim Dynasty?

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.