Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter landed in North Korea Wednesday, culminating months of closely held discussions about whether and how to send a high-level political figure on a mission to free an American who has been imprisoned in the cloistered East Asian country since January.
The Carter trip, which the Obama administration maintains is a "private, humanitarian mission" with no official U.S. government involvement, was organized with extensive participation by top officials at both the State Department and the National Security Council, according to regional experts and former officials who were also involved in the discussions.
Two other potential envoys, Bill Richardson and John Kerry, lobbied fiercely to get the assignment, several Asia hands and former officials said, but Carter was ultimately chosen because the administration believed he was best positioned to succeed.
"Nobody else could say for sure that they could get this guy out," one Asia hand who was briefed on the trip said. The imprisoned American, an English teacher named Aijalon Mahli Gomes, was sentenced to 8 years' hard labor in April.
Carter also offers the administration a degree of plausible deniability, allowing the United States to claim the trip is not related to U.S. policy toward North Korea.
"Sending a current US official might be misinterpreted as hinting at a change in policy, it is explained...and if Kerry, or some other serving official, including Special Envoy Steve Bosworth, was sent over, anything they might say could be interpreted (or mis-interpreted) as a commitment of some sort," Asia expert Chris Nelson wrote Tuesday in his Nelson Report newsletter.Carter would also be better received by the North Koreans, the Asia hand said, because as a former president, they hold him in higher regard than a governor or senator. Therefore, he could meet directly with Kim Jong Il, whereas Richardson or Kerry might be relegated to meeting with a lower-level official.
"It's amazing how little the North Koreans understand Washington," the Asia hand said, pointing out that, compared with Kerry or even Richardson, Carter probably has the least influence on the Obama administration.
Another former official close to the discussions had a slightly different take, arguing that the North Koreans understand Washington better than most give them credit for and that Carter's meeting with Kim represents the best hope for diplomatic progress given the extremely centralized nature of the North Korean system.
Most direct contact between North Korea and the United States flows through what is known as the "New York channel," which refers to North Korea's delegation at the United Nations. This small band of diplomats performs a number of vital functions between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic relations: They plan most visits to Pyongyang by U.S. officials, pass messages back and forth, and even share secrets about other countries, such as China.
Carter, Richardson, and Kerry each have their own independent and well-established links to the New York channel and were working them hard in advance of the trip, keeping in touch with the White House during the entire process.
Richardson in particular had been talking with the North Koreans for at least two months about making the trip but was ultimately told not to go by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, according to one former official's account. Richardson's discussions were so advanced that the North Korean government had even given him some demands they argued were necessary to secure Gomes's release, such as an official apology for Gomes' "crime."
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment. Richardson's office did not respond to requests.
Meanwhile, Kerry had been angling to go to North Korea for some time. Multiple sources report that Kerry has been working on getting a visa to visit Pyongyang for more than a year and was disappointed when Bill Clinton was chosen to rescue Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained by North Korean soldiers in March 2009 and ultimately released.
The Gomes case was personal for Kerry. Not only is Gomes, who is originally from Boston, his constituent, Kerry has been working hard on the case for months and first approached the State Department on behalf of Gomes's mother. "Senator Kerry has offered to do whatever he can to assist in securing the release of Mr. Gomes," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Frederick Jones, who added that any trips to Pyongyang would be closely coordinated with the State Department and the White House.
There are also signs that the State Department is still involved in the trip, despite its official position that it is a private undertaking. For example, department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to deny that a State Department translator is present on the trip. He has said that no U.S. "officials" would be involved, but a translator, usually a contract employee, could potentially fall outside of that description.
Meanwhile, more details are emerging about last week's high-level meeting on the Obama administration's North Korea policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in attendance and the meeting was led jointly by Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.
Crowley described the meeting as one of the regular sessions periodically held at State to examine alternate policy approaches. However, according to two attendees who spoke with The Cable afterwards, there was definitely a sense that Clinton was looking for suggestions of possible changes to the policy. The current U.S. stance avoids direct engagement with Pyongyang until the regime alters its position and commits once again to denuclearization and the six-party talks over its nuclear program.
"[The Clinton people] are uncomfortable having no contact with North Korea; they are worried about potential escalation and that North Korea will get ornery and want to escalate further if we're not talking to them," said one attendee.
Another attendee had a slightly different readout, saying that Clinton is not opposed to the current policy but just wants to prepare options going forward."I think everyone there clearly felt that what has been done so far [by the Obama administration] was the right thing to do, but people were trying to look ahead," this attendee said. "They didn't think doing more of the same is necessarily the right course of action."
The attendees spanned the ideological spectrum of North Korea hands. Experts in the room included the American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt, former NSC senior director Mike Green, former NSC senior director Victor Cha, the Stimson Center's Alan Romberg, former North Korea intelligence official Robert Carlin, Stanford's Siegfried Hecker, humanitarian Stephen Linton, and former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit.
Sources familiar with the thinking of officials like Campbell and NSC senior director Jeffrey Bader say they are not opposed in principle to talking to the North Koreans, but are determined not to reward Pyongyang for its recent bad behavior, which includes the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and suspected widespread weapons proliferation to Burma. Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg is said to favor this approach as well.
Other actors such as Bosworth and Amb. Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, are said to favor a more forward approach, not seeing dialogue as a reward and placing more of an emphasis on getting back to the table.
Whatever happens with Carter's trip, experts say, the administration should take care to make sure no gaps emerge between its diplomacy and the position of its ally, South Korea. Seeming to make overtures to the North could cause problems for the South Korean government, which has been in lockstep with the Obama administration's tougher approach. The South Koreans, unlike most in Washington, were briefed ahead of the Carter trip, a signal that the Obama team has internalized the importance of keeping them in the loop.
But the administration took a risk in sending Carter, a man who has developed a reputation for freelancing on such assignments.
"By putting it in Carter's hands they are running a risk that he could get out ahead of the South Koreans' position," one Asia hand warned.
Yao Ximeng/Xinhua/Associated Press