For almost three decades now, it has been a regular feature of almost every U.S. foreign policy showdown that Jimmy Carter will jet in, or at least pipe up — almost always in ways that advance the interests of whatever despot, rogue regime, or terror group happens to be grabbing headlines in its quest to harm America and America’s allies. Drawing on the gravitas of his former office, ignoring his own disastrous record (for which Americans voted him out after a single term that brought Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — progenitor of the rise of al-Qaeda & cohorts), Carter has made it his stock in post-presidential trade to extend a hand to everyone and everything from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, to the Hamas terrorists ruling Gaza, to the totalitarian regime of North Korea.
Thus did North Korea’s latest threats and attacks produce an op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post by Carter, “North Korea’s Consistent Message to the U.S.,” in which he reminded Americans that he had just visited North Korea this summer. Carter went there at the invitation of North Korea’s government, to obtain the release of an American, Aijalon Gomes, who had been imprisoned in North Korea and sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the totalitarian state. But the grotesque brutality of North Korea’s system did not figure in Carter’s op-ed. Carter ignored such matters as North Korea’s prison labor camps, international criminal rackets such as counterfeiting U.S. currency, and a state system so rigid and controlling that under Kim Jong Il’s rule famine has killed more than one million North Koreans.
Instead, Carter informed his readers that “Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ cease-fire of 1953.” He urged that America respond to this offer, or else…
A small fraction of Carter’s claim is true. Pyongyang has indeed sent a consistent message to the U.S. But that message has consistently been the very opposite of any attempt to negotiate in good faith. If you look at deeds, not words (though even North Korea’s words veer often toward outrageous threats, such as “seas of fire” and war), Kim’s Pyongyang regime has sent a consistent message that it will cheat on any deal, violate any agreement, bully, threaten, extort, and — as Gordon Chang noted yesterday on Pajamas Media — kill people in the cause of sustaining itself in power. The vaunted Six-Party Talks deal in 2007 for denuclearization turned into a bonanza for Kim Jong Il, providing him with free fuel, food aid, and hard cash and leading to U.S. removal of North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then, in late 2008, with Kim enjoying his new hoard of pay-offs, the whole deal collapsed over North Korea’s refusal to allow any real verification. While the first load of goodies was flowing to Pyongyang, in the summer of 2007, North Korea — even while promising to give up the development of nuclear weapons — was secretly helping Syria build a clandestine reactor on the Euphrates River, a plutonium factory in the Middle East. What ended that, in Sept. 2007, was not a gesture of North Korean good faith, but a strike by the Israeli Air Force.
And, of course, there was the 1994 “Agreed Framework” nuclear freeze deal with North Korea, in which the U.S. and allies promised North Korea the gift of two modern nuclear reactors, plus loads of free food and fuel, if only Kim Jong Il’s regime would desist from pursuing nuclear weapons. North Korea took the goods for years, and while the foundations for the reactors were being poured, North Korea was cheating on the deal. The upshot was that the Agreed Framework, with its aid and de facto acceptance of the Pyongyang regime as an acceptable negotiating partner, helped Kim Jong Il consolidate his grip on power inherited in 1994 from his father. Those are the origins of the far greater danger posed by North Korea today — a North Korea which has conducted two nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009), tested ballistic missiles, and continued its sanctions-busting traffic peddling weapons and nuclear technology to the likes of Iran, Syria and Burma (and beyond?). This spring, it sank a South Korean war ship; this past week, it shelled the island of Yeonpyeong; and it feels free to threaten South Korea, the region, and the world with war.
Jimmy Carter was the godfather of that 1994 “Agreed Framework” — conceived during a trip he made to Pyongyang in 1994. Following his latest trip to North Korea, this past August, he would now have the U.S. defer again to North Korea’s threats and attacks, and offer — yet again — a similar deal. At this point, a lot of Americans may be inclined to dismiss Carter as simply a peripatetic crank who can’t resist anything that might still feed his own sense of self-importance. But the bigger question may be what the North Koreans made of his visit to Pyongyang this past August. However diminished Carter may be in U.S. policy circles, he still arrives in a place like Pyongyang wearing the mantle of a former president of the United States. We don’t know the full content of his discussions with what he describes in his piece as “top North Korean officials.” But we do know that Carter himself over the years has conveyed a consistent message. His decision to re-visit Pyongyang this past summer, as well as his Wednesday op-ed, conveyed the same old Carter message: That Americans are chumps. That’s a deadly dangerous message to be sending North Korea. What’s needed right now is a lot less consistency from the U.S., which needs to break the pattern of sending pay-offs to North Korea. One place to start, at no cost to any American except perhaps Carter himself, would be for Jimmy Carter to back off.