Jimmy Carter: Can Obama trust him in North Korea talks?

Jimmy Carter gained a reputation as an independent actor when President Clinton sent him to North Korea in 1994. President Obama will hope Carter – on a mission to bring back a jailed American – does not stray into talks about North Korea's nuclear program.

Former President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Kim Gye-Gwan, North Korea's negotiator in six-party talks about North Korea's nuclear program, at the airport in Pyongyang Wednesday.

Jimmy Carter’s arrival in North Korea Wednesday on a mercy mission to free a jailed American citizen has raised speculation about whether the former president’s foray might ease Pyongyang’s tense relations with the world.

Some specialists see an aligning of forces for a return to the stalled talks about North Korea's nuclear program, noting that China’s chief negotiator in the international six-party talks is currently visiting the Koreas.

But some North Korea experts caution that it is worthwhile to remember what happened after former President Bill Clinton completed a similar humanitarian mission a year ago: not much.

Similarly hopeful expectations accompanied Mr. Clinton’s success at winning the release of two jailed US journalists in August 2009. But tensions between the two Koreas have since rebounded to new highs after the sinking by torpedo of a South Korean patrol ship in March.

“After Clinton’s visit [in 2009] we were treated to breathless media speculation about how this was a precursor to reducing tensions and perhaps even to a nuclear deal,” says Bruce Klingner, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But as we saw, in the end it had little impact on North Korea’s behavior.”

White House jitters?

Mr. Carter is in Pyongyang seeking the release of American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a one-time English teacher in South Korea who was sentenced to eight years in prison for entering the country illegally. The case is reminiscent of that of two US journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, whose release Mr. Clinton secured last year.

Before his mission, Clinton was asked by the Obama administration to stick to the two journalists’ plight and avoid straying into broader US-North Korea issues. By all accounts he did just that – influenced in part, some observers speculated, by the fact that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is secretary of State.

But he also might have undertaken his mission with still-vivid memories of how, in 1994, Carter went beyond his mandate when the Clinton administration sent him to North Korea, say some foreign-policy experts who served under Clinton.

Clinton sent Carter to North Korea at the height of a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear developments. Carter ended up negotiating the terms of a settlement with North Korea, but in the process he burned bridges with the Clinton White House, officials later said, and solidified a reputation for acting as an independent peacemaker.

It’s that reputation that is causing a few jitters in the White House, according to some reports, as Carter negotiates in Pyongyang.

North Korea's high hopes

The North Koreans appeared to be making it clear they hope to use Carter’s visit for more than an eventual goodwill gesture, having sent their negotiator for the six-party talks, Kim Gye-Gwan, to greet Carter at the airport.

“Even if [Carter] doesn’t go off track, there’s still the danger it will be interpreted or used to undermine the current US policy,” says Mr. Klingner.

The Obama administration is expected to announce new sanctions against North Korea in the coming weeks, hoping to pressure Pyongyang to look at nuclear talks within an international framework, and not as a purely US-North Korea issue.

While it’s hard to argue with any effort to release US citizens facing harsh sentences under questionable circumstances, Klingner says, the US also has to consider the impact such high-profile missions have on North Korea’s behavior.

“It tends to indicate to the North Koreans that they can bypass normal diplomatic channels” and dominate the limelight by drawing in “high-profile Americans,” he says. “They end up thinking it’s a sure way to further their objectives.”

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