The 39th President of the United States and Nobel peace laureate, Jimmy Carter, recently made his third visit to North Korea. Those who have kept an eye on the former president’s visit, far from expecting any material results, have looked on it with various levels of indifference, cynicism and disapproval. Carter has since placed his own arbitrary spin on the results of his visit, but experts would be within their rights to call this an insult. The poor results of Carter’s visit lie not in some other reason but with Carter himself.
The man may well think of himself as the champion of peace on the Korean Peninsula, but there is an issue with the fact that his version of peace is equivalent to subservience. His record of being unable to differentiate between the two concepts goes back to his time in the Oval Office. He believed that doing as the Soviet Union suggested was the way to maintain peace - in 1979 he shared a memorable peck on the cheek with then General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. He was a cowardly man whose fear of the Soviet Union led him to answer a question from a West Berlin pensioner about the future of the Berlin Wall with the timid response, “I don’t know. I hope that it will be removed in the future, but I have no idea when that might be.”
As president, he was also either erratic or selective in his application of the universality of human rights. To Carter, for whom human rights were the yardstick of foreign policy, no such rights existed for the people of the Soviet Union, China or North Korea. He only ever raised the issue with allies of the U.S. Even in saying that, his self-declared inability to abide the Park Chung Hee regime resulted in an initiative to withdraw the U.S. forces in South Korea, which only reawakened the urgency of national security to both the Korean government and people, and pushed the issue of human rights onto the backburner.
Carter was unable to achieve many of the things he wanted to while in office, and since being defeated by Ronald Reagan has been working ever harder, but his activities have been of little help to America, the world, and particularly South Korea. It is more appropriate to perceive his actions as mostly a hindrance rather than help. On the other hand, he has made many contributions to North Korea. He has contributed to the prolongation of the regime and acted dutifully as its messenger to the West. In 1994 he sat down face-to-face with Kim Il Sung and eked out a compromise that halted then President Clinton’s plans to denuclearize North Korea by force if necessary.
No doubt Carter himself thinks that his role has brought a measure of peace to the Korean Peninsula, but his tactless actions have both helped to keep the regime alive and given it the opportunity to become a nuclear state. To the North Korean regime, whose prospects of survival after the Cold War ended were nonexistent, facing the prospect of demolition at the hands of American forces, Carter was a blessing.
Back to 2011 and even the man himself admits, albeit unaware, that the reason his end of April visit ended so pathetically lies with him. The group of The Elders “would like very much" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, as well as his son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Eun” but ““We have no indication that we will do so, but it would be a pleasure if we could,” Carter said, acknowledging that the trip was orchestrated by North Korea. Such references are just the same as saying he is being used by North Korea, even if not deliberate.
And of course, he is not completely unaware of that. In order to obtain an audience with Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Eun, some 60 years his junior, this trip to North Korea was made along with several former heads of state known as ‘The Elders’. Apart from Carter, The Elders team on this occasion also included Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland; Gro Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. The objective of the mission was supposedly to raise the nuclear and human rights issues in North Korea, but it is unclear what effort if any Ireland, Norway and Finland have made over the years on either of those subjects where North Korea is concerned.
Whether Carter was afraid of offending North Korea or just trying to obtain a meeting with Kim Jong Il, he shifted the blame for North Korea’s food crisis onto South Korea before the trip had even begun, saying “…we’ll be going with the humanitarian problem existing in North Korea, particularly since South Korea cut off all food supplies to North Korean people, and we’re very concerned about the humanitarian problems there related to children and pregnant women and the poor.”
It’s nothing less than a startling contradiction. It’s like placing the blame for a home robbery on the homeowner for not locking their doors, or the victim of a sexual assault for wearing a short skirt out in public late at night. That is how Jimmy Carter sees the world. If he thinks that South Korea has caused famine in North Korea, I wonder who he thinks has caused Muammar Gaddafi to murder his own people?
And of course he didn’t make a single mention of the consistent provocation over the last two years: the nuclear missile tests, missile launches, the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island or the discovery of Uranium Enrichment Program facilities. But what is more staggering is what he actually did say, at a press conference in Seoul to wrap up his three day, two night stay in North Korea. At a press conference in Seoul last Thursday, Carter, a Noble peace laureate, outlined his view that the West cannot involve itself in North Korean human rights. That this man received a Nobel peace prize, and that his actions are gaining so much attention from the media, are in themselves a major cause of stress for the people of South Korea.
So now, as a matter of course, former President Carter’s interference with South Korea and his history of siding with North Korea have ensured that this visit ended in the only circumstances possible. He was unable to meet with Kim Jong Il last year and has met the same fate this year. Last year he at least had the excuse that Kim Jong Il was visiting China, but this time around there is no such save of face. His failure this time was even more pitiable given his inability to bring about a meeting with either of the Kims, a desire he stated at a press conference in Beijing before his tour.
But the person most responsible for ending his stint as North Korea’s messenger is Carter himself. It is easy to see in my mind’s eye Carter racing excitedly back to the guest house just as the entourage of Elders were heading to the airport to leave the DPRK, upon receiving word from a party official that there was some ‘important business’ to attend to, and being told rather pointedly to take this personal message from Kim Jong Il back and read it to the South Korean leader.
Carter brought back a few lessons from North Korea. First is that right from the start nothing was expected from this man right who is seized by personal ambition and bias. Second, the best way to change North Korea is with a principled and consistent attitude such as that adopted by the South Korean government. The third is that ultimately, it is not the American government or Jimmy Carter that North Korea needs to engage, it is South Korea.