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North Korea releases American to Jimmy Carter with a message - and a snub

Jimmy Carter left North Korea with American Aijalon Gomes and a message that Kim Jong-il wants to resume six-party talks, even if he didn't want to talk to Carter.

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Mr. Carter went to Pyongyang hoping to get the same red-carpet treatment as Bill Clinton, who traveled there in August last year to pick up two women who were filming for Al Gore’s Internet TV network when they were seized by North Korean soldiers on the Tumen River border with China. Mr. Clinton and aides spent three hours over a lengthy luncheon with Kim before taking the women back to California on a private jet.

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Messages exchanged

“The North Koreans must have been tempted to take advantage of Carter’s visit,” says Lee Chang-choon, a retired ambassador and veteran of negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program, “but Carter has no influence” – a remark suggesting he's not as likely as Clinton to have a real effect on US policy on Korea.

Still, Carter is returning to the US with a message: North Korea wants to renew six-party talks on its nuclear program that it’s boycotted since December 2008.

Thus Carter appears as a player in a broad diplomatic offensive waged by both North Korea and China, the North’s only real ally, to get beyond recriminations over the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel the Cheonan in March. North Korea has said it wants to reopen talks that might conceivably lead to yet another agreement under which the North would get an enormous infusion of aid in return for a promise to stop developing nuclear warheads.

Mr. Shim doubts, however, if six-party talks, even if they resume, will be all that important. “Nobody’s interested,” he says. Both the US and South Korea, he notes, have made clear they need a sign that North Korea will comply with previous agreements, including two reached in 2007.

In any case, Shim believes Kim Jong-il has higher priorities than talk about talks.

Higher priorities in China?

His visit to China included the possibility of a summit with China’s President Hu Jintao, at which he was widely believed to want to introduce his third son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-un. The timing in itself appeared as a carefully calculated message of North Korea’s extreme displeasure with US policy as epitomized by strengthening sanctions

Then, says Shim, “he’s asking for massive aid.” North Korea “is flooded in recent rains, and they’re running out of food,” he notes. “Only China will help. China knows North Korea has nowhere else to go.”

At the same time, Carter’s trip to North Korea was met with derision in some quarters here. Kim Bum-soo, publisher of a conservative journal, notes that Carter, when he was president of the US and the late dictator Park Chung-hee was president of South Korea, was a strong critic of human rights abuses in the South.

“But he never criticized North Korea’s human rights record,” says Mr. Kim, quoting the expression, “If you are sympathetic toward the oppressor, you are against the oppressed.”