Carter-Style Diplomacy in Korea

June 18, 1994

Based on his presidential record, Jimmy Carter is hardly a felicitous figure to be injecting himself into the diplomacy of the U.S.-North Korean nuclear crisis. His assertion that Washington had stopped its efforts to seek U.N. sanctions against the Kim Il Sung regime in Pyongyang for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty got the repudiation it deserved from President Clinton and other members of the administration. There is a limit to how far this country should submit to nuclear blackmail.

In self-congratulatory words, Mr. Carter told reporters covering his ostensibly private visit to North Korea that he had made the trip to prevent "an irreconcilable mistake" because "the North Koreans have confidence in me."

Well they might. As a candidate for the White House in 1976, Mr. Carter called for the withdrawal of American combat troops from South Korea -- a proposal that caused consternation among our allies in Asia. Coming so soon after the U.S. humiliation in Vietnam the year earlier, that idea required the concerted efforts of former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, powerful senators and the military joint chiefs of staff to be overturned. "Each time [former Defense Secretary] Harold Brown or I tried to raise the subject with the president," wrote Mr. Vance, "we found him adamant." Noting that "luckily the depths of the disagreement in the executive branch never became public," Mr. Vance stated that the withdrawal policy was reversed in 1979, after a tense Carter meeting in Seoul with South Korean President Park Chung Hee.

Since leaving office, Mr. Carter has gained prestige as a global peacemaker, foreign election observer and doer of good works. It was in that context that he went to Pyongyang over reported State Department objections to try to promote a package plan under which North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear weapons program and accept international inspections in NTC exchange for U.S. diplomatic recognition, economic assistance in building a less dangerous light-water reactor and, of course, an end to the prospect of U.N. sanctions.

Such an agreement, should it materialize, would have to be judged on its long-range, worldwide effect. If it is perceived as appeasement of a North Korean regime that has not hesitated to flout its non-proliferation commitments and threaten war against South Korea, other rogue regimes such as Iraq, Iran and Libya might be encouraged to try their own brand of nuclear blackmail. If, in contrast, the combined influence of the United States, China, Russia and Japan is seen as having coerced North Korea into accepting international norms, this could be a more peaceful world.

Because appearances mean so much, Mr. Carter's intervention is most unfortunate. This is a crisis too delicate to be turned over to private citizens subject to manipulation by a cagey, authoritarian Stalinist dictator, no matter how "extremely sharp" Mr. Carter may find Kim Il Sung at 82.

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