It would be an act of mercy for the planet were Jimmy Carter to hang up his carry-on bag and devote the rest of his days to annotating his post-presidential grocery lists, or maybe sign up for Dancing With the Stars — anything where he might at least do no more harm. Instead, in some eternal quest to live out that second presidential term which American voters in their belated wisdom snatched from him in 1980, Carter goes on and on, glad-handing thugs and hugging terrorists, from Caracas to Gaza to Havana. According to recent news reports, he’s now planning another trip to North Korea — possibly as soon as next week.
Not that North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il seems to regard a visit from Carter as much of a trophy these days. In 2009, when Pyongyang was haggling over terms for the release of two Al Gore employees who had moseyed onto North Korean turf, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, North Korean officials turned down a potential rescue mission by Jimmy Carter. In a memoir about her months as a prisoner in North Korea, Ling records that North Korean officials were infuriated by her suggestion that Carter be enlisted as the high-profile American to come retrieve her. They viewed Carter as washed-up and out of office for too long — a retread unfit to grace a photo-op dignifying Kim Jong Il. “Carter, Carter, Carter!” one official told her. “You have upset many people by asking for Carter.” They held out instead for the bigger prize of a visit by Bill Clinton.
Last summer, having captured another American, Aijalon Gomes, North Korea did agree to let Jimmy Carter come get him. But Kim Jong Il didn’t bother to stick around for the visit. Carter had to make do with a reception by North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan.
This time around, with North Korea reportedly holding yet another American in custody, there’s speculation that this latest prisoner will be released to Carter — as part of what’s becoming a hostage-politics routine in which North Korea’s regime turns over American detainees, like door prizes, to visiting American ex-presidents.
For North Korea to use American prisoners as chits to obtain visits by former U.S. presidents — and for ex-presidents to play this game — is quite horrendous enough. But visits from Carter are cheap; to all appearances, it’s hardly worth Kim’s while to summon Carter for another potential prisoner-release. All concerned have been-there, done-that. Most likely, Kim has something else in mind. So, apparently, does Carter, whose initial 1994 pilgrimage to Pyongyang engendered the “Agreed Framework” nuclear freeze deal in which the West poured aid and fuel into North Korea, and began building Kim two modern nuclear reactors — while North Korea cheated on the deal. At a time when communist states were crumbling, and the old Soviet subsidies had vanished, the Carter-inspired Agreed Framework helped dignify and sustain Kim, as he consolidated power inherited from his late father. Instead of collapsing, North Korea’s totalitarian regime carried on. The regime starved to death an estimated one million or more of its own people while Kim poured resources into missile and nuclear-weapons development, and purveyed these delights to the Middle East.
But Carter thought he’d done the world a great favor. And last November, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, he made it clear that he’s raring to repeat his 1994 feat of useful-idiot nuclear brokering with Pyongyang. Enough already. If Carter wants to play U.S. envoy to North Korea, then let’s see him go the official route, including a White House nomination and the chance for American voters to witness a full review of his foreign policy record at a public confirmation hearing. At the very least, it might help remind the White House that a Jimmy Carter stamp on foreign policy is no asset, heading into the 2012 election.