Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's Mission to North Korea

  • photo courtesy of Utenriksdept www.flickr.com/photos/45192101@N04/6216854255
    Aug 26, 2010

    Since Aijalon Mahli Gomes’s incarceration in North Korea began in January, the U.S. State Department has been laboring along with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to secure his release. In July, the North Korean media reported that Gomes attempted suicide, and a few weeks later, a U.S. consular official and two doctors were allowed to visit him to assess his condition. They immediately called for his release on humanitarian grounds, and the State Department and President Obama have since expressed deep concern over his health. In the beginning of August, however, Philip Crowley, the State Department spokesman, stated that Washington had no immediate plans to send a high-ranking envoy to North Korea to negotiate Gomes’s release. On August 25, former president Jimmy Carter flew to North Korea on what the State Department describes as a “private humanitarian mission” in the hopes of bringing Gomes back to the United States.

    Q1: Who is the U.S. citizen currently being detained in North Korea?

    A1: Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an English teacher and human rights activist from Boston, crossed into North Korea from China exactly one month after his friend and fellow activist, Robert Park, illegally entered the country on Christmas Day 2009. Park was released in February, but the North Korean authorities sentenced Gomes on April 6 to eight years in a labor camp and fined him about US$700,000 for illegal entry. On August 24, it was confirmed that former president Jimmy Carter would leave for North Korea the next day to negotiate Gomes’s release.

    Q2: Why did Aijalon Mahli Gomes enter North Korea?

    A2: It is unclear why he crossed into North Korea. There has been some speculation that he may have intended to assist or show solidarity with Robert Park. His religious devotion may also have motivated him to enter the country with a mission to alleviate the human suffering there. We just won’t know for certain until he explains his actions himself.

    Q3: Has the United States used former presidents in the past to negotiate the release of U.S. citizens from North Korea?

    A3: Yes. Former president Bill Clinton visited North Korea in August 2009 to retrieve two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested for illegal entry into the country. And Jimmy Carter visited North Korea once before as a private citizen in 1994, and he convinced Kim Il Sung to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for reopening channels of dialogue with the United States, eventually leading to the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework.

    Q4: Will Carter be involved in any other negotiations while in North Korea?

    A4: No. The administration has stated that the former president’s trip is purely a private visit to North Korea and is not to be associated with official U.S. diplomatic missions or negotiations. North Korea had previously made it clear that it wanted a high-ranking U.S. official to personally retrieve Gomes, but the United States cannot be seen as making concessions to North Korea during this period of heightened tensions on the peninsula. Carter is a compromise: his status as a former president should satisfy North Korea, and he is not a sitting U.S. official, meaning his visit is not official U.S. diplomacy.

    Q5: Will Carter meet with Kim Jong-il?

    A5: Given his status as a former president and his past visit to North Korea, we would expect that Carter would meet with Kim. This could provide insights on the health of the North Korean leader. However, it appears that Kim Jong-il is now en route to China, making such a meeting uncertain. It would also be interesting to see whether Carter will be able to meet with the third son, Kim Jong-eun, who is the reported successor to his father.

    Q6: What does Kim Jong-il’s trip to China signify?

    A6: If it is true that Carter did not meet with Kim Jong-il, then there are several possible explanations as to why:

    • Kim Jong-il’s health is deteriorating. His reported absence from Pyongyang provided the excuse not to meet with Carter in his condition.
    • The pardoning of Gomes, which the KCNA referred to as a ‘manifestation of [North Korea’s] humanitarianism and peace-loving policy,’ may be attributed to Kim Jong-eun to build up his succession credentials.
    • Schedules simply may not have coincided.  Kim’s trip to China may have been scheduled in advance and overlapped with Carter’s trip to Pyongyang. 

    What does appear evident to North Koreans is that the past practice of using high-level American interlocutors to try to pressure the United States no longer works.  Both Carter and Clinton conducted purely humanitarian missions to retrieve detained Americans in North Korea and performed no other policy function.  This sends a clear signal to Pyongyang that they must deal with the Obama administration and advance the denuclearization agreements of the Six Party talks.

    Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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