Mr. Carter left Beijing with three other former national leaders, Martti Ahtsarri of Finland, Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland of Norway. The quartet describe themselves as “elders,” and Carter said their goal in two days in Pyongyang was to “help the parties address key issues, including denuclearization.”
Carter’s mission bears two clear parallels to his 1994 visit with the late Kim il-sung, then leader of North Korea: Carter at that time pressed for dialogue, and North Korea’s nuclear program was the central issue.
The group hopes to meet with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean who rose to power when his father died three weeks after receiving Carter. Carter missed seeing Kim when he was there last August to bring home an American who had been jailed for entering the country illegally. But the first meeting with Kim il-sung provides a precedent.
After Kim Il-sung died, the confrontation reached a crescendo in which then President Bill Clinton seriously weighed the option of a second Korean War. The confrontation ended, though, with the US and North Korea agreeing in Geneva in October 1994 on a formula under which North Korea shut down its five-megawatt reactor in return for the promise of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors.
That agreement broke down eight years later with the revelation that the North had an entirely separate program for building nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium. The energy reactors were never built, and North Korea resumed fabricating warheads with the old plutonium reactor after expelling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Still, Han and others credit Carter with advancing the cause of reconciliation. “At that time he helped resume the Geneva talks,” says Han. Similarly, this time he continues, Carter and the other three former national leaders “have something to add to the process.”
At the least, says Han, the four leaders can encourage six-party talks – that is, the talks on North Korea’s nuclear program hosted by China and including the US, Japan, and Russia plus North and South Korea.
The chances, though, of a significant breakthrough beyond resumption of talks are not seen as high.
“The North Koreans are on a charm offensive in a quest to resume talks with the US and receive food aid,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior US diplomat, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “No doubt Carter will be given a message that at face value will sound hopeful.”
For Kim Jong-il “to indicate a positive change of policy” on the nuclear issue as well as “continuing provocations,” including the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel and the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea last year “would indeed give hope,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick, “but there is no sign of such a change.”
Victor Cha, former senior White House official on Asia and now a professor at Georgetown University, speculates on another possible highlight of the mission – a meeting between Carter and Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir. “It will be interesting if he meets the son,” says Mr. Cha. That would be “another way the North could use the visit of an ex-president to validate the succession.”