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Assessing Jimmy Carter-Led Elders’ Efforts To Resolve North Korean Issue – Analysis

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By Rajaram Panda

The last week of April 2011 saw a flurry of diplomatic activity in the Korean peninsula, whose primary objective was to bring North Korea back to the multilateral nuclear disarmament talks which have remain suspended since 2008. First, the chief nuclear negotiators of South Korea and China, Wi Sung-lac and Wu Dawei, got together in Seoul on April 26, to bridge differences over resumption of the six-party talks. Wu urged South Korea to work harder for resuming the inter-Korean dialogue and thus paving the way for the ultimate de-nuclearisation talks. Being the host country of the stalled six-party talks, the Wu-Wi meet was a Chinese initiative as a first step for the resumption of negotiations. Taking an optimistic view, South Korea’s foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan stated that he expected China to understand his country’s position and not take a biased view.

It is Beijing’s hope that inter-Korean nuclear talks will lead to a Pyongyang-Washington dialogue and eventually to the six-party talks. Pyongyang’s stance is, however, different. It has refused to discuss nuclear issue as a part of the agenda with Seoul on the grounds its nuclear weapons are aimed at the US and not South Korea. It was, therefore, with the hope of drawing the US into the negotiations that Pyongyang told US experts in November 2010 about the existence of a new enrichment facility. Pyongyang has claimed that its programme is a peaceful energy project, though many view it as a camouflage for producing weapon-grade uranium.

North Korea
North Korea

The Wu-Wi meet was followed by an ‘Elders’ delegation – a group of retired state leaders founded by former South African president Nelson Mandela. Led by former US President Jimmy Carter, the group first visited Beijing before going to Pyongyang and Seoul to see if the ice could be broken and the multilateral nuclear disarmament talks resumed. Carter was accompanied by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson.

From the beginning, South Korea’s foreign minister, Kim, was sceptical about the delegation’s role in resolving tensions on the peninsula given that this was Carter’s self-appointed mission and had no government backing. Indeed, it seemed odd to expect the reclusive regime to warm up to a private initiative when both the Koreas have many channels of communication. South Korea has expressed its readiness to re-open dialogue provided North Korea admits its role in the torpedoing of the Cheonan in March 2010 and the bombarding of a South Korean border island in November 2010. Pyongyang continues to deny its involvement in these two deadly attacks. South Korea insists that its northern neighbour should take responsibility for the two incidents before any substantial dialogue can take place.

South Korea has always questioned North Korea’s sincerity in offering peace talks. It suspects that the Stalinist state, facing huge food shortages, is making these peace overtures with a view to get food assistance from outside. Seoul has maintained that Pyongyang could solve its food shortages by spending less on missile and nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Kim said that North Korea should give up “its outdated tactic to win international assistance first, by opening talks itself.” The Carter team pressed for the resumption of food aid to the North so that a “crisis” can be averted. Surprisingly, at a Press conference in Seoul, Carter accused both the US and South Korea of the “human rights violation” of withholding aid for political reasons.

It may be noted that South Korea suspended its annual shipment of 400,000 tons of rice in 2008. Carter’s plea for food assistance was not received kindly in Seoul. Conservative newspapers slammed Carter for siding with the North and acting as Pyongyang’s mouthpiece. Foreign Minister Kim did not react to Carter’s charge, merely saying that Seoul is wary about sending food because it could support the regime, and stressed that food shortage in North Korea is “a chronic and structural problem”. Pyongyang has been seeking international food assistance to feed its impoverished population of 24 million for decades. In April 2011, the World Food Programme asked the international community for 434,000 tons of food assistance to support the most vulnerable in North Korea.

Carter did not achieve anything substantial from his effort. Because he is a former president, he commands some respect in North Korea. Kim Jong-Il did not even receive the delegation because he had to make an unscheduled visit to China. The other members of the group, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Bruntland and Martti Ahtisaaru, were snubbed by the media, which completely ignored them. With “official channels” stymied, the Carter initiative became a virtual non-event.

A leading English daily observed in its editorial, “none of the expectations hung on the North Korea visit of a delegation led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter came to fruition.”1 It further noted that, “The situation brought on frustration with no clear end in sight.” However, Pyongyang did succeed in sending a message to Seoul through this delegation that it was ready to engage in dialogue without any preconditions, including a possible summit meeting. That in itself could be seen as an achievement, if at all.

Commenting on Carter’s visit to North Korea in a WebMemo of the Heritage Foundation, Bruce Klingner observed that Carter “demonstrated a dangerously naïve misunderstanding of international affairs.”2 Carter supported North Korea and recommended that its offer of a summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak be accepted by other members of the six-party talks so that nuclear negotiations could be resumed. This view is contrary to the one held by the US and South Korea, which insist that Pyongyang should first acknowledge the two attacks of 2010 and provide adequate evidence of having resumed its denuclearisation commitments. The Obama administration is puzzled by Carter’s optimism. Even after the shelling in November 2010, Carter decried the UN sanctions and defended North Korea saying that the attacks were “designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future.”3 Carter attributes the prevailing dismal situation in North Korea to international sanctions and diplomatic isolation rather than to the “regime’s destructive economic policies, high military budget, and provocative behaviour.”4 Carter says: “When there are sanctions against the entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least”.5

Inducing South Korea, the US and other donor nations to resume food aid might sound fine. But there is no foolproof mechanism of food distribution to the needy and there is no guarantee that food aid would not be diverted to the military. None of the Elders in the group have ever criticised Pyongyang’s atrocious violations of human rights. Nor did they criticise Pyongyang’s repeated violations of UN proliferation resolutions. Both South Korea and the US are unlikely to buy any of the argument/suggestions made by the Elders. While keeping the doors open for negotiations, the US and South Korea are unlikely to relax any of the terms and conditions they have set for Pyongyang.

1. “Carter’s Visit to N. Korea”, http://english.hani.co.kr/popups/print.hani?ksn=475716 (Accessed on 5 May 2011).
2. Bruce Klingner, “Jimmy Carter in North Korea: Ignoring Reality”, WebMemo No. 3239, 29 April 2011, The Heritage Foundation
3. Jimmy Carter, “North Korea’s Consistent Message to the U.S.”, The Washington Post, 24 November 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/23/AR201011… (accessed on 4 May 2011)
4. Klingner, n. 2.
5. Christopher Bodeen, “Carter Attacks Sanctions Against N. Korea Ahead of Visit”, 25 April 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42744604/ns/world_news-asia-pacific/ (accessed on 4 May 2011)

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/AssessingtheJimmyCarterledEldersEffortstoResolveNorthKoreanIssue_rpanda_050511

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The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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