Jimmy Carter's North Korea visit: Can he repeat Bill Clinton's success?

Jimmy Carter's North Korea trip this week may echo a successful meeting he had in Pyongyang 16 years ago. But can he secure the release of an American hostage as fellow former President Bill Clinton did last year?

John Amis/AP/File
Former President Jimmy Carter updates donors about current activities of the Carter Center in Atlanta, in this April 23 file photo. Carter is reportedly poised to fly to North Korea on a rescue mission this week.

Former President Jimmy Carter is reportedly poised to fly to North Korea on a rescue mission this week that carries what analysts see as tremendous diplomatic significance amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The ostensible reason for Mr. Carter to fly to Pyongyang is to pick up a 30-year-old American whom North Korean soldiers seized after he crossed the border into North Korea from China last February.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was teaching English in South Korea before deciding to go to North Korea, attempted to commit suicide, according to a North Korean report, after a court in April sentenced him to eight years in prison. Two American doctors, accompanied by consular officials, saw him earlier this month, and US officials have been pressing hard for a way to have him released.

A State Department official has said any such mission would be “humanitarian,” but it assumes special significance in view of Carter’s success in defusing the first Korean nuclear crisis more than 16 years ago when he met with North Korea’s "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.

Mr. Kim died less than a month later, handing over power to his son, Kim Jong-il, but US and North Korean officials in Oct. 1994 signed an agreement in Geneva for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for massive aid. That deal broke down in 2002 with the revelation that North Korea, after shutting down its nuclear reactor, was attempting to get around the Geneva agreement by producing warheads with enriched uranium rather than plutonium at their core.

Following in Clinton's footsteps

Adding to the drama is that Carter, by going to North Korea, would be following in the footsteps of another former president, Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang in early August of last year aboard a private jet. Mr. Clinton, after spending three hours dining with Kim Jong-il returned with two American women who had been picked up by North Korean soldiers on the Tumen River border with China while filming a documentary for former Vice President Al Gore’s Internet TV network.

Carter’s plan to go to North Korea was first revealed on the website of the journal Foreign Policy. The article cited experts as cautioning, however, that “Carter's trip should not be seen as a change in US policy toward Pyongyang and will likely not yield any breakthrough in what most see as a diplomatic stalemate between the two sides.”

A private trip

On that note, Carter’s mission would differ from that of Clinton in one significant way. Carter would travel with his wife, Rosalynn, and possibly his daughter, Amy, but probably not with a coterie of former US government experts on North Korean issues. His trip, said a State Department spokesman, would be entirely private.

Although Carter would stay overnight in Pyongyang, it’s uncertain if he would see North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

Tim Peters, a missionary here with a long background in dealing with defectors in North Korea, says he would be "surprised” if Carter got to meet Mr. Kim.

Mr. Peters believes “tensions are still too high” for such a meeting in view of the sinking of the South Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea in March with a loss of 46 sailors.

A South Korean investigation that included experts from half a dozen countries found that the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, was caused when a midget North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that split the Cheonan in two. The North denies any role in the attack.

A master stroke by Kim Jong-il?

Regardless of whether Carter meets Kim Jong-il, however, analysts see North Korea’s eagerness to receive such a high-level American visitor as a master stroke on the part of Kim Jong-il.

“It is kind of spoiling North Korea whenever that kind of thing happens,” says Ha Tae-keung, who runs North Korea Open Radio, which broadcasts by short wave into North Korea and reports on events in the North. “One of the reasons for North Korea to receive Carter is that it is propaganda for the North Korean people. They can interpret this as the Obama administration giving in to the North Korean regime.”

Paik Hak-soon, who directs North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank, sees a Carter visit as “particularly symbolic in view of his very important role in solving the first nuclear crisis in 1994.”

Mr. Paik believes that Carter, like Clinton, will brief President Obama on his return.

“He will carry a message,” says Paik. “That is something we need at this moment.”

From a strictly humanitarian point of view, Carter’s trip was welcomed here despite concerns that Kim Jong-il would use it for propaganda purposes. “We hope Mr. Gomes will be released on humanitarian grounds,” says a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman. His release is good news to us.”

Peters, whose Helping Hands Korea group aids North Korean children who are essentially outcasts in China, calls the Carter mission “the answer to our prayers.”

“Anyone who has been through detention in North Korea for eight months has been through hell,” says Peters. Gomes “had a deep and abiding sympathy for North Korea. I’m glad his ordeal is about over.”

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