During his self-appointed mission to North Korea this week, former President Jimmy Carter engaged in yet another sanctimonious effort to impose his vision onto U.S. policy. His trip was the latest iteration of a predictable pattern of coddling dictators and blaming the shortcomings of those regimes on the United States and its allies.
Once again, Mr. Carter has demonstrated a dangerously naïve misunderstanding of international affairs. Carter’s approach ignores important principles such as adhering to UN resolutions, complying with international law, and not committing unprovoked acts of war.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il did not meet with Carter but realized the utility of using the visit to burnish North Korea’s image and facilitate the regime’s latest charm offensive. According to Carter, Kim is “prepared for a summit meeting directly with President Lee Myung-bak at any time to discuss any subject directly between the two heads of state” as well as “willing to negotiate with South Korea or the United States on any subject at any time and without any preconditions.”
Carter recommended that North Korea’s offers be accepted by the Six Party Talks members to enable resumption of the nuclear negotiations. Such a view runs counter to current U.S. and South Korean requirements for Pyongyang to first acknowledge its two attacks on South Korea last year and to provide evidence it will resume its denuclearization commitments. Although the former president declared his trip was to reduce the high level of tension and mistrust on the Korean Peninsula, he ignores that North Korea is solely responsible for escalating those tensions.
Carter has strongly criticized the Obama administration’s two-track policy of conditional engagement and sanctions punishing North Korea for repeatedly violating UN resolutions. In a November 2010 Washington Post op-ed, Carter downplayed North Korea’s belligerency by characterizing Pyongyang’s shelling of a South Korean island and disclosure of a uranium enrichment facility -- another violation of UN resolutions -- as merely “designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future.”
The former president blames North Korea’s current conditions on international sanctions and diplomatic isolation rather than on the regimes destructive economic policies, high military budget, provocative behavior. Carter opined, “when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer the least.” The current UN and US sanctions are, in fact, highly targeted against individual violators of UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874 rather than general sanctions against the North Korean populace.
After returning from Pyongyang, Carter declared that South Korea’s deliberate withholding of food aid constituted a human rights violation. He seeks to alleviate North Korea’s current food shortages by inducing South Korea, the United States and other donor nations to resume food aid and take steps for North Korea’s economic development.
Notably absent from the comments of any of Carter’s delegation were any requirement for Pyongyang to implement economic reform, accept vigorous monitoring standards to ensure food aid is not diverted to the military, or comply with UN resolutions. Despite the inclusion of Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the group had no criticism of North Korea’s atrocious human rights violations. Nor did Dr. Gro Brundtland, a commissioner of the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation, criticize Pyongyang for its repeated violations of UN proliferation resolutions.
Carter’s advocacy for removing sanctions and resuming dialogue with Pyongyang will have little traction in Washington or Seoul following two years of endless North Korean provocations. During my meetings with senior South Korean officials in Seoul earlier this month, there were no indications that the Lee Myung-bak administration would reduce its insistence that Pyongyang make amends for its attacks and provide evidence that it would fulfill its denuclearization commitments.
At this point, it is not necessary for either the United States or South Korea to publicly rebut Carter’s assertions. Instead, Washington and Seoul should continue to publicly emphasize that the door to negotiation remains open to Pyongyang if it first addresses South Korean security concerns and resumes its commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.
International sanctions are the result of North Korea’s belligerent actions and should be maintained until North Korea complies with international law and U.N. resolutions. They should not be negotiated away for simply returning to Six-Party Talks;
The Obama administration should call on UN member nations to fully implement existing U.N. resolution requirements, including freezing and seizing the financial assets of any complicit North Korean or other country’s company, bank, or government agency. US and UN reluctance to target the other end of the proliferation pipeline has hindered international efforts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Rather than Carter’s silence on North Korean human rights abuses, the United States should challenge North Korea to improve its abysmal human rights record through exposure at international fora, including at the U.N. Washington should also call on Beijing to abandon repatriation of North Korean defectors and allow visits by the U.N. rapporteur on North Korean human rights to investigate refugee conditions in northeast China.
Providing food aid to North Korea remains a difficult policy decision. Clearly there is a need since the North Korean populace is suffering from the abysmal conditions imposed by the country’s economic system. Yet North Korea’s track record of belligerency, violation of UN resolutions, diversion of food aid, and resistance to economic reform and monitoring requirements undermine support for providing food assistance. Large-scale aid should not be provided without tangible changes in North Korean policies and behavior.
Bruce Klingner is a Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Daily NK