Will Jimmy Carter's latest North Korea visit change anything?

Former US President Jimmy Carter ended a quick visit to North Korea this week with a message that Kim Jong-il would be willing to hold a summit with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak.

By , Correspondent

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    Former US President Jimmy Carter listens to reporters' question following his North Korean trip during a joint press conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, April 28. Carter says North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is willing to hold direct talks with South Korea's president.
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Former US President Jimmy Carter’s 48-hour mission to Pyongyang this week leaves analysts wondering whether anyone, however well intentioned, can persuade North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il to relent on his hard-line policies and return to serious talk on giving up the North’s nuclear program.

Mr. Carter, arriving in Seoul on Thursday along with the former leaders of three other countries, repeated the North Korean mantra of eagerness to negotiate “without preconditions” but acknowledged that he had again not succeeded in meeting Mr. Kim.

Instead, he and the other three, including Martti Ahtsarri of Finland, Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland of Norway, had to settle for a written message, said Mr. Carter, of willingness to negotiate “at any time and without any preconditions.”

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That statement, similar to many released by North Korean officials in recent months, “is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns,” says L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington. It’s “bromides that we’ve all heard before.”

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The great flaw in the message, say North Korean analysts, is that North Korea couples the message with what amount to conditions, including a demand that the United States must provide “security guarantees” and negotiate a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. The US position is that North Korea must first negotiate with South Korea.

'Deep regret'

Carter reported that Kim Jong-il had said in his message that he would be willing to hold a summit with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. But South Korea has insisted on an apology first from North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March of last year with a loss of 46 lives, and for the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea last November in which four people were killed.

North Korea expressed “deep regret” over both incidents, according to Carter. But the North has repeatedly denied anything to do with the Cheonan sinking and accuses South Korean gunners of opening fire from the island before the North Koreans fired back.

Symbolism vs. substance

“Carter's visit may get some attention,” says David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, but “it's not really going to change anything.” Mr. Kang sees “strategic patience” as "the only game” at this stage. “He may accomplish a little symbolically,” he says, but “substantively very little will change in the short term.”

The failure of the quartet of former leaders – they call themselves “elders” – to see Kim Jong-il comes as a special disappointment since Carter did meet Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, in an historic visit in June 1994 in the midst of an earlier nuclear crisis. That visit was seen as helpful in leading to the Geneva agreement of October 1994 in which North Korea hut down its nuclear reactor in return for the promise of twin nuclear energy reactors.

The Geneva agreement broke down eight years later with the revelation that North Korea had a separate program for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium, and the reactors were never built. Six-party talks, hosted by China, including the US, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas, were last held in December 2008.

North Korea, however, clearly hopes for an infusion of food aid, provided by South Korea for a decade under the South’s Sunshine policy of reconciliation before the conservative Lee Myung-bak took over as president in February 2008. South Korea and the US cut off such aid while waiting for the North to live up to agreements for ending its nuclear program.

In Seoul Carter said “one of the most important human rights is to have food to eat.” He also decried the cut-off of food aid by the US as “a human rights violation.”

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