Former President Jimmy
Carter will travel to North Korea next month, a State Department official
"We have been made aware of his trip. I'm not aware of any
plans we have to talk to him. He's obviously traveling in a private capacity," State
Department spokesman Mark Toner said,
adding that Carter "does not carry an official U.S. message."
the news last August that Carter was set to travel to Pyongyang to rescue Aijalon
Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old man from Boston who was sentenced to eight years in prison after being arrested
for crossing into North Korea from China. The State Department was happy to
have the Gomes issue resolved, but many within the administration viewed
Carter's claim of progress in dialogue with North Korea upon his return
In November, Carter wrote an op-ed
in the Washington Post calling for
engagement with Pyongyang.
"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. We should consider
responding to this offer," Carter wrote.
But the North Korean government has been increasingly
belligerent since Carter's last trip to the Hermit Kingdom. It sunk
the South Korean ship Cheonan,
shelled a South Korea island with artillery, and unveiled a
whole new cascade of uranium enrichment tubes to visiting American experts.
The Obama administration has made clear that it won't enter
into talks with North Korea until the regime takes
steps to address the complaints of South Korea first.
South Korea's Yonhap
news agency reported
that Carter will travel to Pyongyang with former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and other senior
dignitaries. Perhaps this time he won't be
snubbed again by North Korean leader Kim
Jong Il, who decided to take a trip to Beijing last year just as Carter
The Carter Center did not respond to requests for comment.
Two GOP senators opened another line of criticism of
President Barack Obama's approach to
the Middle East on Thursday, this time calling on the administration to more
strongly criticize the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on popular
demonstrations and begin engaging the Syrian opposition.
Government violence against protesters in Syria is
escalating, with security forces reportedly
killing 15 people on Wednesday during a raid on a mosque in the southern
city of Deraa. Some reports put the night's death toll at 37
or more. The State Department put out a statement condemning the deaths and
issued a 90-day travel alert on Thursday that warned Americans about the
violence surrounding the protests.
"The United States is deeply troubled by violence and
civilian deaths in Dara'a at the hands of security forces. We are concerned by
the Syrian Government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests in
Dara'a to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal
rights. We condemn these actions and extend our deepest condolences to the
families and friends of those who have been injured or lost their lives. We
call on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence
against peaceful protestors," The statement read.
But Sens. Jon Kyl
(R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to
know if the Obama administration is reaching out to Syrian opposition leaders
and offering them support, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
"The Syrian people must know
that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime.
We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising," the senators
said in a Thursday statement. "We urge the President, Secretary Clinton and
Ambassador Ford to publicly condemn the murders committed by the Assad
dictatorship and to demonstrate their support for the Syrian people."
By invoking Ambassador Robert Ford, Kyl and Kirk are calling for
the administration to make good on its argument
that the United States needed an ambassador in Damascus to have maximum
influence with the Syrian government. Kyl and others Republicans held up the
Ford nomination for 10 months because they saw the appointment of any
ambassador as a reward to the Syrian regime, and they wanted the administration to more clearly spell out its Syria policy.
The president used a recess appointment for Ford to
circumvent the Senate confirmation process. Kyl and Kirk now want Ford to use
his perch to condemn the Syrian regime's crackdown.
"Ambassador Ford should begin
a sustained campaign of outreach from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the
Syrian opposition movement," they said.
The Syrian government and the
U.S. embassy in Syria have never been close: An internal report last April stated that the access of embassy officials to those inside
the regime is scarce. This makes the danger for Americans in Syria even graver.
It is still unclear who has
organized the demonstrations in Syria, so the Obama administration may find it
difficult to engage with opposition figures, even if it wanted to.
Pressure on the
administration to get tough with the Syrian regime is growing. The Washington Post printed an editorial
today that called on Obama to demand an investigation into the killings in
Deraa and tighten sanctions on Damascus.
"After Wednesday's massacre, Syrians are likely to feel
still angrier - but they also will be watching the response of the outside
world," the editorial stated. "That's why it is essential that the United
States and Syria's partners in Europe act quickly to punish Mr. Assad's
behavior. Verbal condemnations will not be enough."
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney put out the following strongly worded statement on the violence in Syria:
The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s brutal
repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings
of civilians at the hands of security forces. We reject the use of
violence under any circumstances. We are also deeply troubled by the
arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others. Those
responsible for the violence must be held accountable. The United
States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of
expression and peaceful assembly, and believes that governments must be
responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people. We call on
the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of
its people and call on all citizens to exercise their rights peacefully.