We recall that in March the ever aggressive North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, thus ending what to that point had been a period of generally improved relations between the rivals on the Korean Peninsula. Washington, ever aware of the Pyongyang drive to establish a nuclear presence, expanded sanctions. The U.S. then began a series of military drills, proving solidarity with the South, and thereby placing an American-based military stronghold in that vicinity.
North Korea in recent days, this being late summer of 2010, has invited a return to six-party talks on the issue of the sinking and on the nuclear issues. They have asked Washington to send an envoy to discuss improving ties. China too has expressed hope for a return to the talks, which have been stalled for the past two years.
But Washington and Seoul (the South Korean capital) have determined a policy of non-communication. They refuse to return to negotiations until the North admits the sinking of the Cheonan. They see the six-party talks as a show to win international aide, and to reduce sanctions.
Former American President and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter, who aided in resolving a 1994 crisis over the Pyongyang nuclear program, has now flown to North Korea, at his own expense, to attempt some resolution to these issues, and with the ambition of freeing American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old former English teacher. Gomes began in April to serve eight years of hard labor, accused of illegally entering the North.
Gomes has attempted suicide while in confinement. He claimed the lack of efforts on his behalf by the U.S. government moved him to the attempt. Gomes is believed to have entered the North intentionally to show his support for another United States citizen who was hoping to call attention to dismal conditions at the North Korean prison camps. Ironically, that individual was released after serving 40 days. Pyongyang has promised to release the teacher upon a Carter visit. President Carter hopes to spend a single night in Pyongyang, then return with Gomes to America.
President Carter, traveling with his wife on a private jet, was greeted at the airport by Kim Kye-gwan, Vice Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a top nuclear negotiator, and the main envoy to the six nation talks. The South has not been entirely supportive of the former President’s mission. Hong Kwan-hee, head of the Institute for Security Strategy in Seoul, South Korea, claims the North commonly uses Americans, usually Democrats, to “drive a wedge” between Seoul and Washington. He calls Carter an idealist, lacking in pragmatic views.
The Obama administration has yet to comment on the visit, saying that his administration had no plans to send an envoy to Pyongyang on behalf of the imprisoned Gomes, and that Swedish diplomats were there to negotiate that release. Sweden is ordinarily utilized in this type of situation. Likewise, the U.S. embassy in Seoul could not confirm the report of Carter’s travel.
Last August, following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s non-descript and bootless visit to North Korea, in which they compared her to a pesky school child, former American President Bill Clinton flew at his own expense, met with Pyongyang, and was well received. Bill Clinton won the release of two U.S. journalists who had been held for five months for illegally entering the country.
At this writing, President Carter remains in North Korea. As yet the American press has received no further information. We hope the promised release has not been altered.
Also there is an unexpected turn of events. North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il has gone to China by rail and entered that nation at about midnight on Wednesday. Several sources from the South feel this is a sensitive matter; they speculate that Mr. Kim might be taking his son to formally introduce him to Chinese leaders. South Korean news outlets reported the same possibility. Other possible motivations for the visit of Mr. Kim to China include the discussion of aide for recent flood damage, and the possibility that Mr. Kim is seeking medical attention for a sudden decline in his health. In any case, the Korean people agree that it is highly unusual for Mr. Kim to leave his country while an important guest is visiting. One analyst said that this might even constitute a “political message” and is a notable breach of diplomatic etiquette. It indicates, the analyst said, the North Korea gives priority to China over the United States.