Former President Jimmy Carter and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari were hoping to visit the State Department this week to brief officials on their recent trip to North Korea, but nobody at the State Department was available to meet with them.
Carter and Ahtisaari, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, had been eager to give their readout of their meetings in North Korea April 26 and 27 to U.S. officials and press their case for a resumption of food aid to the Hermit Kingdom. The two are members of the Elders, a group of senior figures who have been informally engaging with regimes that official governments won't deal with, in the hopes of finding pathways to peace. They traveled to North Korea last month with former Irish President Mary Robinson and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. Other members of the Elders include Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
But no one at the State Department would meet with them, so the trip to Washington was cancelled.
"The trip was arranged at short notice and due to busy schedules and given everything else going on we were not able to arrange meetings at the right level," a spokesman for the Elders told The Cable. The State Department offered no comment on the situation.
The Chinese, however, had time for the Elders. They spent two days in Beijing April 24 and 25 and had dinner with foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Neither the North Korea nor South Korea leaders met with them, but they did get meetings with high level officials in both countries. Ahtisaari and Brundtland also had meetings in Brussels last week with President of the EU Herman Van Rompuy and several other EU officials.
But while the State Department might be too busy to hear from the Elders, your humble Cable guy has a bit more free time. Before the cancellation, The Cable had an exclusive interview with Ahtisaari, who at that time was very excited to brief State Department officials on his first visit to North Korea. He even held out hope for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ahtisaari called on the international community and the Obama administration to resume food aid to North Korea and to delink humanitarian assistance from political negotiations. He said the World Food Programme had better monitoring capabilities than before, better access, and there was less chance the DPRK would divert food aid to feed its military
He also called for the beginning of a political dialogue with the DPRK on all outstanding issues and said that the North Koreans were interested in both bilateral talks and discussing a return to the Six Party Talks on its nuclear program. Ahtisaari also said the Elders were told that Kim Jong Il was prepared to join a summit meeting with his south Korean counterpart, Lee Myong Bak.
"I'm not asking anyone to believe every word that the North says, but we have to take seriously when they say they are prepared to talk," Ahtisaari said. "How do you expect your present policy of not talking to solve any of the issues you presumably you want to be solved. I don't have any other answers but to sit and talk."
It's no secret at all that the Elders' trip to North Korea was viewed as extremely unhelpful by the governments both in Washington and Seoul. Chris Nelson reported on April 29 that Clinton reacted strongly when asked in a morning meeting if she wanted to meet with Carter. From the Nelson report:
The performance of President Carter and his delegation in N. Korea this week was either shameful or fatuous...or both...and exemplifies why Carter had no...zero...USG support going in, and even less coming out, per an alleged eye witness account of Sec. St. Clinton at the morning meeting the other day:
"Do you want to meet with Carter?" Clinton is looking at papers, and just says "No." Then she pauses, looks up and adds, "HELL no!!!"
Besides going to North Korea without any administration support, Carter alienated Washington's policy community when he declared at a Seoul press conference on April 28 that "to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation."
Former NSC Senior Director for Asia Victor Cha just happened to be in Seoul that day, staying in the same hotel as the Elders, and said that people in South Korea were very upset at Carter's remark.
"People who work on the food issue with North Korea know the very real problems of diversion to the military, and Carter's statement implied that China -- because it gives food unconditionally to North Korea -- is more of a human rights upholder in North Korea than the others, which was not well-received," Cha told The Cable.
Ahtisaari wouldn't say that he agreed with Carter's statement, but tried to explain the context.
"What he simply wanted to do was to make a dramatic appeal to everybody, because we have seen due to the political constraints there has been unwillingness to assist the North in a humanitarian way," he said. "It's totally unacceptable to mix politics with humanitarian assistance."
Ahtisaari criticized the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to focusing on ties with allies and not engaging North Korea until the regime admits guilt for recent violent attacks against the South and recommits to its promise to denuclearize.
"Your approach is not terribly trustworthy either, because if the other side says they are willing to discuss all outstanding issues, I say ‘let's test them.' The process has to start; this situation of simply talking past each other doesn't mean anything," Ahtisaari said.
"I have seen worse conflicts than this one, so start talking."
Meanwhile, there are reports that Ambassador Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean Human Rights, would visit North Korea next week, but at Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner said no decision had yet been made. Toner also said Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was in South Korea now discussing the food aid situation.
"Our position on food aid is entirely separate from any political decision we may make or any policy decision we may make vis-a-vis North Korea," Toner said. "Our food assistance program... is based on a credible, apolitical assessment of the needs and also autonomy over how that food assistance is delivered."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.