The Cable

Why did Kim Jong Il snub Jimmy Carter?

Former President Jimmy Carter returned home from Pyongyang Friday with pardoned prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes in tow. Carter succeeded in his mission. But Kim Jong Il completely stood him up by taking a surprise trip to Beijing, in what Korea hands say is a clear signal to Washington that North Korea hasn’t made the decision ...

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Former President Jimmy Carter returned home from Pyongyang Friday with pardoned prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes in tow. Carter succeeded in his mission. But Kim Jong Il completely stood him up by taking a surprise trip to Beijing, in what Korea hands say is a clear signal to Washington that North Korea hasn’t made the decision to get serious about dealing with the United States.

For the Obama administration, the trip couldn’t have gone better. Not only did Gomes get saved after spending 7 months in a North Korean prison for crossing the border with China illegally, but Carter seems to have stayed on message and didn’t upset U.S. policy, despite fears that the former president would take the opportunity to freelance.

The administration may have had no choice but to send him. Multiple reports now say that it was the North Koreans, not the White House, that chose Carter over two other prospective rescuers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Diplomatic sources say that while it’s true that the negotiations over sending a high-level envoy date back months, all three candidates were making preparations to go and the final decision came as late as last weekend, just days before Carter left. We’re also told that while it’s true the North Koreans communicated they wanted Carter, the actual negotiations were complicated and involved input from both sides.

Of course, Carter’s ability to thaw relations between Washington and Pyongyang was hampered by the fact that he never was able to meet with the one man in North Korea who can make such a decision. Kim left for China just as Carter was arriving and didn’t come back until the former president had left Pyongyang.

Carter was met at the airport by Kim Kye Gwan, the lead North Korean nuclear negotiator. His dinner and meeting was with Kim Yong Nam, a high-ranking official but not at the head of state level and not a blood relative of Kim, who is a self-proclaimed “living god.” Meanwhile, Kim was mugging for photographs with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing.

“It’s worse than a slap to the face, it’s basically giving the middle finger to the United States,” said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security. Kim’s message to Carter was, “Go ahead and come over Mr. President. You don’t matter, I’m not even going to be here to meet with you.”

Cronin said Kim’s calculation had as much to do with China as with the United States. Kim was probably sending a message that he using Beijing to ease impending U.S. pressures related to his nuclear weapons programs, including a host of new unilateral sanctions and joint military exercises with South Korea.

On Wednesday, China’s official media organ the People’s Daily published an article about U.S. policy toward North Korea that was so aggressive it could just have easily appeared on the hyperbolically inclined North Korean official media site, experts said.

“Although Washington is not openly talking about the policy, its goal remains to overthrow the current North Korean government,” the article said. “The controversial sinking of the South Korean battleship, in retrospect, is more like a convenient excuse for the US to conduct a long-planned drill that envisions the occupation of the North, rather than a single reaction toward an emergency.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt said that the trip and the article cement the stance of China as North Korea’s de facto defense lawyer. China refused to acknowledge that North Korea sank the South Korean ship Cheonan and is now openly criticizing the approach of the U.S. and South Korea, two of Beijing’s supposed partners in the six-party talks.

“Chinese objectives have been revealed by this official pronouncement and Chinese objectives are to maintain support for North Korea, to lean towards North Korea when American seems to be potentially menacing, and to signal that China’s interests lie more in the security of North Korea’s territorial integrity than in the denuclearization of the DPRK,” Eberstadt said.

Meanwhile, Kim has a lot on his mind. Although nobody know for sure, it’s widely speculated that he brought his youngest son and prospective heir Kim Jong Un along for the trip to introduce him to Chinese leaders and prep an announcement of his succession at next month’s Worker’s Party conference.

Michael Green, former senior Asia director in the National Security Council, argues in a piece on Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government blog that the whole episode shows that both China and North Korea are looking toward succession rather than short-term engagement, and the U.S. should do so as well.

“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,” argues Green. “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?”

Overall, Carter’s trip resulted in more questions than answers about what is happening inside the world’s last Stalinist state, as well as what is to come. As Green noted, “There are strange goings-on in Pyongyang these days.”

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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