Why is Jimmy Carter visiting North Korea?

2010-09-03 12:41
Seoul - Former US President Jimmy Carter arrived in North Korea on Wednesday to try to win the release of an American jailed for illegally entering the reclusive state.

Carter is on a private mission to free Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was sentenced by the North to eight years hard labour earlier this year.

Following are some questions and answers about the trip:

Q: Why Jimmy Carter, not a sitting US official?

A: As with previous such missions, Washington has made it clear that this is a private humanitarian visit. Yet such a visit could only be made with the approval of the Obama administration.

Washington does not want to be seen to be dealing directly with Pyongyang, particularly since toughening sanctions against the North following the torpedoing of South Korean warship earlier this year. The United States has resolutely stood behind Seoul's assertion the North was behind the attack.

Carter has credibility with the face-conscious North Koreans, who hosted the former president at a pivotal visit in 1994. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate met then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and persuaded him to join talks about its nuclear weapons ambitions. At the time, the North had threatened to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel, prompting the Clinton administration to call for UN sanctions.

Q: Why carry out such missions?

A: A number of prominent figures have made similar humanitarian visits to free Americans held in the North, including former President Bill Clinton who oversaw the release of two US journalists last year. This appeals to the domestic political audience.

Analysts say a deal on Gomes' release has most likely already been reached.

Such visits also serve to provide useful intelligence about the reclusive state. For example, Clinton's doctor, who accompanied the former president on his trip to Pyongyang, attended a meeting between Clinton and Kim Jong-il and relayed his observations about the ailing leader's condition. Kim suffered a stroke in 2008.

The mission could also ease heightened tensions on the peninsula. Carter could also get a sense of what the North Koreans' next move might be.

Q: Why would Pyongyang free the American?

A: International pressure is once again starting to hurt the North following the sinking of the South Korean warship this year, with renewed sanctions squeezing its broken economy. The country has little it can export except weaponry and has been hard hit by U.N. sanctions that have made it tougher to sell missiles and other arms overseas.

By freeing the American, the North hopes to gain some leverage.

Q: Will Kim Jon-Il be seen as buckling?

A: No, to the contrary. In the past, releases have been a propaganda coup for Kim. Last year's visit by Clinton was portrayed by the North's media as proof that the country's nuclear test and missile launches a few months earlier were a stunning victory for Kim and that resulted in the former US president coming to Pyongyang to pay tribute and negotiate.

Q: Will the visit have any impact on stalled nuclear talks?

Not directly.

South Korean media have reported the North wants Washington to send an envoy to discuss improving ties. Pyongyang says it has reached a consensus with China, the closest North has to a friend, on the resumption of stalled nuclear disarmament talks. Beijing is keen for Seoul and Washington to put the sinking of the warship behind them, and to return to the negotiating table.

But the United States and South Korean are adamant Pyongyang must first admit responsibility for the sinking of the vessel before they will consider returning to the six-party talks.

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