Jimmy Carter's North Korea visit may trigger cooling-off period
Jimmy Carter was greeted Wednesday by North Korea’s nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, which analysts say is a signal North Korea wants the visit to be about much more than the release of US prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes.
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“Denuclearization is North Korea’s priority,” says Mr. Kim, alluding to statements by the North expressing willingness to return to six-party talks that it’s avoided since December 2008. North Korea last week received China’s nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, in Pyongyang, and Mr. Wu arrives in Seoul on Thursday for talks in which he will undoubtedly pass on North Korea’s position.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, Carter is expected to fly back to Washington with a message intended to advance the dialogue beyond recriminations over the sinking of the Cheonan, an episode that has raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula to their highest level in years.
South Korea’s defense minister, Kim Tae-young, escalated the rhetoric on Tuesday, saying South Korean forces would fire on North Korean targets if artillery shells fired by the North landed on South Korea’s side of the line in the Yellow Sea, as they did after South Korea finished exercises there more than a week ago. South Korean and US naval ships are planning more war games in the Yellow Sea early next month.
“Probably we need a cooling-off period,” says Kim Sung-han. “We will be exploring an exit strategy” – that is, an exit from threats and counterthreats. At the same time, he adds, “North Korea needs to show a sign of change in its behavior, a blueprint or a road map.”
Carter's been here before
Carter’s previous record suggests how highly North Korea is likely to regard him as an emissary.
He and Mrs. Carter visited Pyongyang in June 1994, and he had a historic conversation with Kim Jong-il’s father, the long-ruling "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, in a boat on the Daedong River. Although Mr. Kim died less than four weeks later, that meeting defused a growing nuclear crisis and led to the signing of the agreement at Geneva in October 1994 under which North Korea shut down its reactor in exchange for the promise of construction of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors.
South Korea’s media on Wednesday evening was full of speculation that Kim Jong-il would see Carter, just as he saw another former Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in early August last year. Mr. Clinton, like Carter, flew to Pyongyang on a private jet, in his case to pick up two women from Al Gore’s Internet TV network whom North Korean troops had seized filming along the Tumen River border with China.
“Will tensions between the US and North Korea ease with the visit,” asked Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest paper. “Carter's visit is perhaps more significant” than Clinton’s, said the paper, even though the Geneva agreement failed to stop North Korea from halting its nuclear program and the energy reactors were never built.