On Wednesday August 25, 2010, former president Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of a Boston man, Aijalon Gomes, imprisoned there since January. Gomes had entered the isolated dictatorship through China and was sentenced to eight years of hard labor after his capture. Carter, according to The Associated Press, was greeted with “smiles, salutes, and hearty handshakes” upon his arrival.
This was not the first time that Carter had visited the so-called “hermit kingdom” on a one-man mission. In 1994, President Clinton, whose relationship with Carter was often chilly, reluctantly agreed to dispatch the ex-president to North Korea to prevent the regime from continuing its nuclear program. Clinton and the State Department were apprehensive about Carter’s style, and he was not on the top of the list of potential deliberators. His approach was unconventional, as he was inclined to establishing deep personal relationships with foreign leaders and sometimes discussing religious matters. As historian Douglas Brinkley explains in his book The Unfinished Presidency, “the prospect of Jimmy Carter running loose in North Korea made the State Department nervous. The general consensus was that this was no time to experiment with Carter’s Christian freelancer approach to diplomacy.” Ironically, Clinton had just sent the Reverend Billy Graham to do the same bidding, and the renowned pastor was turned away.
Carter was sent as a private citizen and was instructed not to present himself as a U.S. envoy. He was successful in convincing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, and the regime would not seek to reestablish one until the Bush administration famously labeled it as part of an “Axis of Evil.” His 1994 mission was lauded as a breakthrough for U.S.-North Korean relations. For years, Carter has maintained a unique relationship with North Korea’s leaders, and has established himself as a skilled negotiator with one of the most unsavory regimes in the world. Why is this one-term U.S. president, whose tenure is often associated with words such as “malaise” and “hostages,” regarded as such a valuable intermediary when it comes to such a difficult foreign policy problem?
It is true that former president Clinton also has a commendable track record as a negotiator in North Korea. In 2009 he arranged for the release of two prominent American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, held captive and sentenced to years of hard labor. But even Clinton does not enjoy the same type of reputation as Carter. Carter’s long-standing access to the notorious Kims dates back to his presidency. As of today, Carter remains the only president to make a serious and sustained attempt to remove all American forces from South Korea. Thousands of troops have remained on the peninsula since the armistice of 1953, which ended the Korean War. Richard Nixon removed about 20,000, but his maneuver was motivated by the need for manpower in Vietnam.