Playing Nice with North Korea

Jimmy Carter convinced Kim Il Sung to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Maybe he'll have the same luck with Kim Jung Il.

North Korea can make concessions to a visiting ex-president without losing face. This was dramatically illustrated when Jimmy Carter persuaded Kim Il Sung to freeze his nuclear weapons program—in June 1994, setting the stage for the formal nuclear-freeze agreement known as the Agreed Framework in October. Now Carter is revisiting Pyongyang for the first time to explore a compromise leading to the resumption of US-North Korean denuclearization negotiations and to seek the release of a captured American.

The White House has adopted a rigid stance, insisting that Pyongyang take denuclearization steps as a precondition for dialogue, and more importantly, resisting bilateral negotiations prior to the resumption of the six-party denuclearization discussions conducted by the Bush administration.

The Obama administration is missing a perfect opportunity. The present rigid US policy undermines the moderates in the Pyongyang leadership who were moved into key positions by Kim Jung Il at the recent Workers Party Congress. Not only his sister, Kim Hyong Hui, his brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek, and his favorite son, Kim Jung Un, but more important, Kang Sok Ju, long the leading advocate of improved relations with the United States, who was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister. When I proposed the concept of a nuclear freeze to the late Kim Il Sung in a meeting with him on June 9, 1994, it was Kang Sok Ju, then Deputy Foreign Minister, who persuaded Kim in my presence to accept the proposal.

Hard-liners in Pyongyang had long blocked Kang’s efforts to get the idea of such a deal before Kim Il Sung, so Kang used an interview I had scheduled to get it before the “Great Leader.” When I proposed the freeze concept to Kim, he looked surprised, turned to Kang for a seven-minute discussion in Korean and finally told me that he accepted it.

Carter then got him to reconfirm his acceptance of the concept and announced the breakthrough on CNN without first consulting the Clinton White House, where Washington’s set of hard-liners wanted military intervention and sanctions to get Pyongyang to denuclearize.

With North Korea now facing an acute food shortage, Carter could explore a long-term U.S. food-aid commitment to Pyongyang in return for denuclearization concessions. Pyongyang’s United Nations Ambassador, Han Song Ryol, has proposed such a deal repeatedly to me in past years. But the U.S. response has invariably been that food aid is given only as a humanitarian gesture, not for political purposes. Thus, the United States and other members of the United Nations World Food Program are resisting Pyongyang’s current pleas for emergency aid.

This is a hypocritical response to the present crisis, since Washington does, in fact, impose blatantly political conditions for participating in UN food aid by demanding that Pyongyang agree to more intrusive inspections to assure that the aid does not go to the armed forces. Creating these conditions makes no sense because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations no matter what. While a food aid offer alone would be desirable, a better approach would be to combine offers of long-term energy aid and long-term food aid linked to denuclearization demands. Prodded by China, North Korea has already signaled its willingness to resume both bilateral US denuclearization talks and the six-party dialogue cut off at the end of the Bush administration. Talk about a squandered opportunity.

Image by Kok Leng Yeo