Peter Pringle's America: That blessed peanut farmer

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The Independent Online
NOW THAT Kim Il Sung's elaborate state funeral is over, we can return to the discussion of Jimmy Carter's cameo appearance in North Korea last month. The visit was widely seen as a diplomatic triumph, and greatly helped his otherwise poor image as an American leader. A less flattering view - that his trip was an act of gross egomania which needlessly damaged the image of the presidency - tended to be set aside. But it should not be.

In the recent crop of ex-presidents, Carter is the one who has actually worked on behalf of democracy and human rights - as opposed to writing self-serving, repetitive books a la Nixon. Carter has acted as an intermediary in conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. He has striven tirelessly and with no personal reward to oversee democratic elections in emerging states, campaigned for the eradication of the so-called Guinea worm, a parasite that plagues Africans, and even rolled up his sleeves to bang in nails on housing projects for the poor. Until the trip to North Korea, his record in retirement had been almost flawless - in contrast to his four years in the Oval Office.

But something went wrong. Instead of being on a mission for the good of mankind, Carter seemed to be on a personal crusade. It worked - as he said himself - miraculously, and the unnerving tone of heavenly intercession was not lost on those slightly uncomfortable with the earnestness of this Southern Baptist. His meeting with Kim Il Sung may yet mark the beginning of the end to North Korea's apparent obsession with building a nuclear arsenal. But the mission left a nasty taste.

Before Carter's visit, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme was at an impasse. Kim refused to let United Nations inspectors examine key parts of the allegedly peaceful project. Perhaps one bomb was already near completion. President Clinton was pursuing economic sanctions as a means of forcing Kim to end the deceptions, and US hawks were talking about pre-emptive air strikes on the offending nuclear facilities.

Carter offered to go to Pyongyang to mediate, but President Clinton at first turned him down. Because of Carter's image as a failed president, Clinton had kept his distance - especially over the North Korean question. Carter thought that Clinton's policy of seeking UN sanctions was wrong, and he had said so many times.

Carter believed sanctions would only make the situation worse, and might even embolden North Korea to go ahead and build a bomb. Clinton's stance - reasonable, in my view - was that the mere threat of sanctions might push Kim into another direction and should at least be tried. When there was no response he relented and gave Carter permission to go.

Without official instructions from Washington, Carter told Kim that Clinton was not serious about sanctions and, as a result, extracted from Kim, just before he died, a pledge to 'freeze' the North Korean nuclear programme. The deadlock seemed to have been broken, and high-level talks were back on again.

But the Administration looked bad. Here was a former president - the highest US unofficial official ever to visit the North Korean dictator - making US policy on the hoof. Worse, CNN was on hand to record all Carter's moves - something Carter himself had arranged. Publicly, Clinton could not but give much of the credit for the 'breakthrough' to Carter. And Democrats heaped praise on the former peanut farmer; at last a foreign policy success for Clinton, even though the credit was Carter's.

Privately, Clinton was hopping mad. He had not stopped pursuing sanctions when Carter was in Pyongyang. In fact his officials were still trying to lure a reluctant South Korea and Japan into a consensus on sanctions. And they were talking to the Russians about imposing sanctions at the precise moment Carter was saying on CNN that they had given up. The Administration decided to make, as one official put it, 'a silk purse out of a sow's ear' and proclaimed the 'freeze' of the North Korean nuclear programme as a success. But Clinton knew that the freeze could as easily have been another failure - an attempt by Kim to buy time, which is an essential ingredient in building nuclear weapons.

Good may yet come of Carter's visit. The best interpretation is that because Kim's imprimatur is on the freeze, his son and enforced heir, Kim Jong Il, will now be able to carry it forward. But the son may not have the authority of his father, and in the end the Carter mission could be seen as having contributed to, rather than averted, a crisis.

This is not smart diplomacy. As so often during his presidency, Carter may have been right, but the way he acted turned too many people off. In his Christian, crusading manner he was so convinced of his own correctness that he ignored the public nudge and wink and the backroom chat that are basic ingredients in persuading others to your point of view.

What a pity, because a peacemaker of Carter's devotion is so desperately needed.