Citizen Jimmy Carter

WE won't know for some time whether talks between the United States and North Korea, set to begin July 8, will lead to a solution to the nuclear showdown there or will turn out to be part of a grand deception by a country and leader fully capable of such tactics.

Thus any full assessment of the success or failure of former President Carter's citizen diplomacy in Pyongyang must await events.

But this much can, and should, be said now. In the US, North Korea is off the front pages and leads of newscasts. The concerns of US allies in Tokyo and Seoul, who have even more to lose, have lessened greatly. And the countdown clock on a military confrontation with North Korea has been frozen, at least for now.

Some conservative commentators have been unwilling to accept the idea that Mr. Carter - in their eyes a meddling and naive do-gooder - could have accomplished anything. They have ridiculed Carter's statement that his agreement with North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was ``really kind of a miracle'' as though it was a hubristic declaration of his personal abilities. Given the former president's deep Christian faith, it is more probable that the statement expressed his confidence that, supported by the prayers of many, he had been able to do more than he himself had thought possible.

The Clinton administration has had reasons to be wary of Carter's North Korean initiative. It consistently has sought to separate itself from the ``failed'' Carter presidency. Further, professional diplomats have been concerned that the diplomatic amateur might only make the situation worse (somehow forgetting the Carter who brokered the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace accord?).

Whatever the outcome of his foray to North Korea, Carter has had a remarkable ex-presidency. He could be playing golf and shuffling papers in his presidential library. Instead, he's helping ensure fair democratic elections in third-world countries, building houses for the poor, and lobbying heads of state on behalf of political prisoners. Would that we had more naive do-gooders like him.

As it enters unfamiliar territory in talking with North Korea, the US undoubtedly will keep a clear eye. The negotiations will not be based on trust, but on North Korean actions.

Carter has brought the sides together and brokered a chance for a peaceful settlement. The White House was right to allow the Carter mission, and President Clinton was right to praise the former president's efforts.

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