WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter flew into Boston on Friday with an American teacher who had been jailed after crossing into North Korea and was freed as a result of Carter’s mission.
Neither Carter nor Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was sentenced by the North to eight years of hard labor earlier this year, spoke to reporters as they ended what the Gomes family called “a long, dark and difficult period.”
The North’s official KCNA news agency, however, said the country’s number two leader Kim Yong Nam told Carter Pyongyang is committed to denuclearizing the peninsula and resuming six-way talks that have been stalled for two years.
Following are some questions and answers about the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea:
DOES CARTER MISSION SIGNAL A NEW U.S. APPROACH TO N. KOREA?
Not in the near future. Obama administration officials have repeatedly said they are not interested in “talks for the sake of talks” or in “buying the same horse twice” — a reference to Pyongyang’s practice of extracting aid for making promises, then breaking those promises and seeking rewards for renewing their pledges.
Speculation that the 85-year-old Carter might pave the way to renewed U.S.-North Korea diplomatic contact is based on the fact that his 1994 visit to Pyongyang to meet with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung helped defuse an earlier nuclear crisis on the peninsula.
In what South Korean media have called North Korea’s “hostage diplomacy,” parallels were also seen between Carter’s trip and former President Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang in August 2009 to free two jailed American journalists.
However, while Clinton held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, this time the secretive Kim traveled to China apparently without talking to Carter. Clinton’s trip was followed by a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth, but no such mission appears to be in the works now.
North Korea watchers in Washington said they saw no evidence to suggest that the administration has moved away from its stance that Pyongyang must first take tangible actions to show it is serious about abandoning its nuclear programs.
“The administration feels strongly ... that until we have seen some action by the North Koreans that they are ready and serious about undertaking the talks, they are quite happy to stay in this position of ... ‘strategic patience’” said Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.
KCNA’s report on the Carter mission said “Kim Yong Nam expressed the will of the DPRK government for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the resumption of the six-party talks.”
Washington wants Pyongyang to go beyond rhetoric and promises to show up at nuclear negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, and commit to implementing disarmament pledges the North made in earlier rounds of six-party talks.
Carter’s visit took place amid heightened tensions on the peninsula after the torpedoing in March of South Korea’s Cheonan warship, which Seoul blames on the North and which prompted Washington to expand sanctions against Pyongyang.
“I don’t see any shift away from the administration’s insistence that the North take responsibility for the Cheonan and that it demonstrate its serious about resuming the process of denuclearization if it wants to have a meaningful engagement with the United States,” said a U.S. Congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Analysts said Pyongyang could show it is serious by, for example, declaring its main atomic facility at Yongbyon was shut down and inviting U.N. nuclear inspectors to return and resume monitoring the facilities that North Korea used to produce the plutonium for nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Kim Jong-il’s surprise China trip remains shrouded in secrecy, but analysts said it was striking that he passed up a rare photo opportunity with Carter, which Pyongyang would traditionally has valued for its propaganda effect.
The sudden trip suggested Kim was seeking Chinese aid for a dire economic situation made worse by summer floods this year and, possibly, Beijing’s endorsement of Kim’s plans to hand over power to his third son, Kim Jong-un.
If the rushed trip to China indicates the 68-year-old Kim’s health is increasingly frail, North Korea could be headed for a period of uncertainty while Washington has few channels to the players in the succession process and Beijing deepens its already close ties to Pyongyang.
The succession period could bring more North Korean military provocations like the Cheonan attack as rival factions compete to demonstrate their nationalist credentials.
Proponents of engaging North Korea despite the current mistrust also warn that every month that goes by without diplomacy is another month Pyongyang has to increase and improve its nuclear weapons and to proliferate nuclear technology to countries like Syria and Myanmar.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert; editing by Todd Eastham