In Praise of Special Envoys
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

In Praise of Special Envoys

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No matter how you look at it, former US President Jimmy Carter's latest trip to North Korea was a failure. Unlike his first trip in 1994, this time Carter failed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or make much progress toward a nuclear arms control agreement. And unlike his trip to Pyongyang last year, Carter proved unable to convince his guests to release another imprisoned American citizen as a humanitarian gesture.

But just because Carter failed doesn’t mean that better selected special envoys can’t, under better conditions, make positive contributions regarding Korea.

Carter made clear that on this latest trip, at the end of last month, he was acting on his own initiative. Both Seoul and Washington eagerly reinforced that impression, stressing that Carter was a private third party. Still, before he arrived, Carter had expressed hopes of meeting with Kim Jong-il as well as his youngest son, and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. 

Carter was also accompanied by three other former national leaders, who like Carter belong to the so-called Elders group of independent eminent statesmen founded by former South African President Nelson Mandela: former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Irish President Mary Robinson, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Still, despite these reinforcements, Kim again declined to see Carter, who had to settle during his three-day sojourn for meetings with Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly President Kim Yong Nam, and other senior, if largely impotent, North Korean representatives.

Meanwhile, the team also failed to secure the release of Korean-American Jun Young Su, detained since last November for allegedly engaging in missionary work. This was in contrast to last August, when the North Koreans allowed him to return with Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who they had detained for entering the country illegally.

Last year, Kim had a good excuse not to meet Carter — he was in China seeking to secure Beijing’s blessing for the latest North Korean hereditary succession (an idea that should repel any genuine communist, and which is particularly awkward this time given Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience).

So what happened this year? Kim might have feared that Carter’s group could raise awkward questions regarding North Korea’s atrocious human rights policies. After all, before his arrival, Carter had attacked the South Korean and US governments for curtailing their food deliveries to the North—when it was actually North Korea that had ordered their cessation and the withdrawal of the foreign aid workers—and might have sought to balance those comments with a reprimand of the North.

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