Thus it was that Carter flew from Beijing to Pyongyang this week with three other former national leaders, ex-president Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson, banded together in a group known simply as “The Elders.”
The door to the club is not open to just any ex-leader out of a job. Rather, this group was founded by former South African president Nelson Mandela nearly four years ago, is chaired by South African activist and Christian cleric Bishop Desmond Tutu and counts Myanmar’s opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi as an honorary member. Here are people who have truly made a difference, whose records are totally commendable — and who have nothing to gain or lose by blessing the rest of the world with their received wisdom and experience.
Could it be, however, that these worthies, far from exuding near-holy qualities, were shown to be humans after all, susceptible to the blandishments of North Korean propaganda, foolishly incapable of advancing the cause of reconciliation between North and South Korea after two days in Pyongyang?
And was their mission, in the end, so inconsequential that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il would not deign to see them — not even to introduce them to his son and designated heir, Kim Jong-Un?
It would be hard to exaggerate on the embarrassment of Carter’s words when he and his fellow elders arrived in Seoul fresh from Pyongyang, mouthing just about everything, apparently, that the North Koreans had been telling them, playing on their sense of wisdom, confident they would have nothing critical to say about their hosts. It was as if to save face, to give them a crumb off the table, that Kim Jong-Il granted them the dispensation of a “message.”
The elderly quartet could not have been more thrilled. If they were not going to see the Dear Leader in person, here at least was the next best thing: a letter that Carter, evidently the chief elder among elders, could quote from as if it were an original document that carried the seeds of a solution to non-stop North-South confrontation. Why, they had been called back especially, just as they were about to leave, to receive copies of the message.
Yes, Kim Jong-Il was ready to talk to anyone “without preconditions.” Yes, Kim Jong-Il would love a summit with South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, just as he had received Lee’s two left-liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-Jung, for the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, and DJ’s successor, Roh Moo-Hyun, in October 2007.
Carter did not actually release the contents of the message, maybe because it was really for President Lee, not everyone, but he hit the highlights in tones that made it all sound so simple.
There were, to be sure, a couple of simple requests — nothing that reasonable men couldn’t attend to. There was, for instance, the matter of a “security guarantee.”
The North Koreans apparently feel the American forces, down to 28,500 from 45,000 when Carter was president in the late 1970s — he had to swallow his pride and keep them there when he wanted to bring every one of them home — are poised to attack. What would be so hard about U.S. President Barack Obama promising to do no such thing? And while they were at it, the Americans should also agree to a formal peace treaty instead of that outmoded armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
Carter evinced no sign of having comprehended the advice the quartet received from Daniel Pinkston, head of the International Crisis Group’s Korea office, when he briefed the quartet in Beijing before they took off for Pyongyang.
“The U.S. is obligated to provide negative security assurance to North Korea,” said Pinkston, but Carter’s remark “seems to imply that the U.S. has not provided negative security assurances.” That, said Pinkston, “is not the case.” Actually, the U.S. has offered the requisite assurance “on several occasions,” he observed.
But what “would be sufficient in the eyes of the North Korean leadership?” Pinkston asked rhetorically. “If it means things such as renouncing extended deterrence for allies in East Asia and withdrawing U.S. forces,” he responded to his question, “then it’s not going to happen.” And as for “credible commitments and implementation of previous agreements,” he added, North Korea “clearly has reneged on its commitments or failed to implement them.”
Not the least of the commitments that North Korea has violated was the Geneva framework agreement, reached between the U.S. and the North in October 1994 just four months after Carter met Kim Jong-Il’s father, Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, at the height of a nuclear crisis that bears a remarkable similarity to the current one.
The old man, who ruled the North for nearly half a century, died three weeks later as tensions worsened, but Carter is credited with having set in motion the process that resulted in the Geneva framework under which the North was to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the promise of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors.
The trouble was that North Korea, while shutting down its five-megawatt experimental reactor for producing warheads with plutonium, had an entirely separate program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium. It was the revelation of that program eight years later, in October 2002, that detonated the Geneva framework — and led to six-party talks hosted by Beijing. North Korea, however, hasn’t lived up to the agreements reached at those talks either.
None of which stopped Carter from getting down to what North Korea needs most right now: food. Toward that end, he made a mockery of claims of North Korea’s egregious human-rights record, accusing the United States (and South Korea) of violating human rights by holding back on the bounty of food and fertilizer showered on the North during the decade of the “Sunshine” policy initiated by Kim Dae-Jung.
It did not occur to Carter, and the three other “elders,” to wonder why North Korea did not divert some of the billions for fabricating warheads into importing food needed to make up for the shortfall. Nor did he comment on why the North Koreans were so happy to have them in Pyongyang — another ploy to bring in the food the North wants to store up in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary, nearly one year from now, of the birth of Kim Il-Sung.
Could it be that the whole reason Kim Jong-Il now wants to revive the six-party talks, which North Korea boycotted after the last round in December 2008, is somehow to work out a deal on food — without, of course, giving up his precious nukes?