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.

Former President Jimmy Carter receives flowers from a North Korean girl upon his arrival at Sunan airport in Pyongyang Wednesday.

Former President Jimmy Carter and wife, Rosalynn, flew into the North Korean capital of Pyongyang Wednesday amid hopes of a breakthrough in US-Korean relations as symbolized by the person who greeted them at the airport.

North Korea’s nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan, a veteran of years of off-and-on talks with US envoys on getting the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program, welcomed the former first couple on their arrival at the outset of an overnight visit that the US insists is strictly “private” and “humanitarian.”

Although the stated reason for the visit is to bring US citizen Aijalon Mahli Gomes back home, that appears to be diplomatic cover for talks that Mr. Carter is now expected to have with top North Korean officials, possibly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. Mr. Gomes, from Boston, was in South Korea as a teacher and preacher until he was arrested in January after crossing the border from China with a letter asking Kim Jong-il to resign. North Korean media said he attempted suicide after a court sentenced him in April to eight years in prison.

STORY: Can Jimmy Carter repeat Bill Clinton's success in North Korea?

Carter agreed to go, apparently with the approval of the White House, after North Korean authorities made clear that Gomes would not be freed unless a high-level American came to Pyongyang to bring him back. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch only that Carter “and his group,” whose members were not named, had arrived and that Kim Kye-gwan had greeted them.

The man who was sent to greet Carter sends signal

“Kim Kye-gwan’s meeting Carter has a symbolic meaning,” says Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University here. “It symbolizes North Korea’s intention to shift attention to the denuclearization issue” – and away from the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, the Cheonan, in March. North Korea has repeatedly denied having anything to do with firing the torpedo that split the ship in two in the Yellow Sea with a loss of 46 lives.

“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.

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.

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