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Why Is Jimmy Carter Going to North Korea?

While traveling to secure a prisoner's release, the ex-president may broach wider issues

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In a development first reported by Foreign Policy, it appears that Jimmy Carter will be informally dispatched to North Korea in hopes of securing the release of a United States citizen who crossed the border and was caught by authorities. The ex-president, who has remade himself into one of the nation's highest-profile diplomats after a single term in office, has previously engaged with North Korea during the Clinton years and most recently spearheaded house-building projects in Thailand and Vietnam.

But the choice of a political outsider signals to some critics that the Obama administration would like to distance themselves from the good-will mission. Pundits weigh in on the choice:

  • The Goal: Free a Bostonian Toiling in a Labor Camp After the State Department failed to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, Jimmy Carter was tapped, writes Newsweek's Ravi Somaiya. "North Korea-watchers feel that the visit may even mark a positive step in the frosty relationship between the country and the rest of the world," though Somaiya concedes that Carter may not thaw relations because he's,"not expected, or allowed, to discuss wider issues [and] he often goes off-message in such circumstances." The administration had also considered John Kerry or Bill Richardson, but eventually settled on the ex-president.
  • This Is the Second Attempt at Securing a Release observe Jack Kim and Jeremy Laurence at Reuters. "The U.S. State Department said last week that a four-person team had gone to Pyongyang in August to secure the release of Gomes but was not successful," they write. The visit also takes place at a time of particularly heightened tension in Pyongyang because of the recent sinking of a South Korean warship allegedly by North Korean forces.
  • He's Traveling as a Private Citizen reports Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy, much in the same way that, "former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang last August to bring home Current TV reporters." The writer notes that the Obama administration has stressed the fact that the trip will be a "private humanitarian effort" and is trying its hardest not to conflate Carter's mission with Obama's strategy for North Korea. "But although Carter doesn't have official sanctioning to wade into North Korea policymaking, he might just do it anyway. Carter is known for having an independent streak, boldly taking on foreign-policy issues whether invited to do so or not."
  • Carter Always Dabbles in Foreign Affairs scoffs Don Surber at The Daily Mail, who points to an article describing how Carter undercut Bill Clinton's aims for North Korea in the early 1990's. At the very least, reckons Surber, "Carter may actually be an improvement over Obama and Hillary Clinton."
  • North Korea Has Agreed to Release Gomes If Carter Comes for Him notes Politics Daily correspondent Tom Diemer, who cites Associated Press sources. "It is not clear why Gomes, who was teaching English in South Korea, crossed into the North" in the first place. Which raises the question...
  • Will North Korea Keep Capturing Americans Until It Gets a Photo-Op From Every Ex-President? quips Wonkette. "This week's lucky winner of a guided tour of scenic Pyongyang: Jimmy Carter."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.