By Kang Hyun-kyung
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who arrived in Pyongyang Wednesday to free an American imprisoned for illegally entering the reclusive nation, left North Korea’s capital Friday after comdpleting his mission.
After the departure, questions still remain unanswered as to why North Korean leader Kim Jong-il chose to head to China early Thursday morning without holding talks with Carter while he was there.
Professor David Kang of the University of Southern California speculated that the visit, while important, was not considered as important as North Korea-China relations, given the tensions of the past six months after the sinking of the warship Cheonan.
In an email interview with The Korea Times, Kang said, “Whatever unofficial message the North Korean leadership wants to give to Carter, it can be done by Kim’s deputies.”
His analysis came hours before the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed the former President’s departure.
The state-controlled media mentioned nothing about a meeting between the ailing North Korean leader and Carter.
The KCNA reported that during his two-day visit, Carter sat down with Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, for talks.
“Kim made it clear our government’s official positions on denuclearization and the resumption of the six-party talks. He noted denuclearization is a core legacy left by the late leader Kim Il-sung,” the media outlet said.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, saying, ``(We) are relieved that he will soon be safely united with his family.”
The absence of the Kim Jong-il-Carter meeting remained an enigma as it was widely considered “a missed opportunity” on the part of the North.
North Korea observers said the “desperate” nation, which is under pressure from multiple bilateral and multilateral sanctions, could have made the most of the Carter visit to send a message to the United States through him.
China, which fears instability on the Peninsula in case “a sudden change” occurs in the North, strove to turn the tide after the UNSC adopted a presidential statement condemning the attack on the warship.
President Barak Obama’s administration, which appears to be “sick and tired” of talks for the sake of talking, has stood firm on denuclearization in the North, setting forth a major hurdle impeding the Chinese endeavor to turn the tide.
Hence, the question comes: Why did North Korean leader Kim choose to visit China while Carter was in Pyongyang?
Joel Wit, a former State Department official and the founder of the website 38north.org, said it was hard to believe that the North Koreans would ask Carter to visit Pyongyang and then not have him meet Kim.
“I think it is a little too soon to do a proper analysis of everything that is happening, particularly Kim’s visit to China and Carter’s to the North. I think we need to wait and see how events play out,” Wit told The Korea Times.
Kim Seong-min, a representative of Radio Free North Korea, said Kim Jong-il might have calculated that Carter was not as influential as he used to be on the U.S. government’s North Korea policy.
“I think North Korean officials might have concluded that Carter was different from former U.S. President Bill Clinton who visited the North last year to release two American journalists,” he said.
Clinton had a meeting with North Korean leader Kim before bringing two journalists home.
“Although the two former-U.S. presidents went to Pyongyang for similar humanitarian efforts, North Koreans may have thought that Carter’s hands were tied, as far as his influence on Washington’s position on the North was concerned,” Kim said.
The U.S. State Department characterized Carter’s visit as "a private humanitarian effort."
The former U.S. President left Pyongyang amid China’s effort to resume the six-party talks that have been in limbo since last April. North Korea withdrew from the multilateral talks after the U.N. Security Council adopted a presidential statement decrying its rocket launch.
Chinese chief nuclear envoy Wu Dawei arrived in Seoul Thursday and met with several senior foreign ministry officials to discuss the resumption of the six-party talks.
Wu’s visit came about a week after he met with North Korean officials.