North Korea Hands Over U.S. Prisoner to Jimmy Carter

A successful venture into the Hermit Kingdom

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Former president Jimmy Carter's trip to North Korea to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes is a success. Kim Jong-il released the Boston native, who departed with Carter for the U.S. Questions, of course, remain: how did Carter get the concession so easily? Where does this fit into the broader narrative of U.S.-North Korea relations? And why did Kim Jong-il reportedly board a train to China just as Carter was entering the country? The second round of analysis offers some possible answers to these questions.

  • The Planning Behind the Trip  This mission was the "culminat[ion] of months of closely held discussions," writes Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin. "Two other potential envoys, Bill Richardson and John Kerry, lobbied fiercely to get the assignment, several Asia hands and former officials said," and were in constant contact with their own North Korea links "in advance of the trip," but "Carter was ultimately chosen because the administration believed he was best positioned to succeed." As a former president, the North Koreans view him as a figure of higher stature, even though, of the three who had been considered for the trip, he has by far the least influence on the current administration. In fact, this disconnect was also viewed as a plus: he "offer[ed] the administration a degree of plausible deniability." He was, in some sense, also a "risk," in that he has "developed a reputation for freelancing on such assignments," but Rogin points out that the State Department was heavily involved behind the scenes here, even possibly sending a translator with Carter.
  • Déjà Vu  Donald Kirk writes in The Christian Science Monitor of being witness to Carter's first trip to North Korea over its nuclear program.
Enter Jimmy Carter again. This time he goes to Pyongyang by plane to pick up a beleaguered American. While there, he's talking. The cycle resumes. Nobody wants another Korean War.
  • The Cyclical Nature of North Korean Negotiations  It's "like the change of the seasons," writes Bradley Martin, author of a book on North Korea and the Kims. "North Korea is seen to misbehave, the U.S. tightens the screws--and a debate ensues in which policy critics push instead for engagement, including incentives for isolated Pyongyang to emulate China and Vietnam with economic reform and opening that could make it less of a bad boy on the world stage." In fact, he notes:
As Carter flew to Pyongyang to trade the prestige of such a high-level visit for the release of Christian human rights activist Aijalon Mahil Gome ... the Kim Jong-il regime had already appeared to signal a cyclical shift in its own policy. (And as Carter settled into Pyongyang, the news ... is that the reclusive leader has taken a surprise trip to China.)
  • About that Kim Jong-il Trip to China  It's certainly an odd move to make just as Carter entered the country. But Doug Mataconis thinks it's explainable: "While reading North Korean tea leaves is never easy," he admits, "it's not too hard to figure out that the elder Kim is concerned about the succession more than ever before, perhaps because he's dying. Whether he can succeed in putting his son in power may depend on the Chinese."
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