Carter and Elders Gain Little Ground in N. Korea

April 29, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
ELDERLY EMISSARY: Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter smiles at an April 28 Seoul press conference following his trip to Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il did not meet Carter, but sent a note expressing willingness to join uncondition (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
ELDERLY EMISSARY: Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter smiles at an April 28 Seoul press conference following his trip to Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il did not meet Carter, but sent a note expressing willingness to join uncondition (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter left North Korea empty handed on Thursday after hoping his visit, along with three other former heads of state, known as the Group of Elders, could chart a course toward resuming peace talks.

However, the group never got to meet leader Kim Jong Il, he merely sent a message reiterating the familiar line that he will negotiate “at any time and without any preconditions.”

Last time Carter visited Pyongyang in August, Carter was similarly snubbed by Kim.

Kim’s message, however, did mention important preconditions on the North Korean side, including that the United States must to provide “security guarantees” before it will engage in talks.

After the trip, the Group of Elders released a statement on its website saying, “There is no sign of an imminent breakthrough, especially on inter-Korean relations.”

“I believe that our visit has contributed to greater understanding, but it will be up to those directly involved to make real progress. … There are no quick fixes to security and nuclear issues, and progress will require greater flexibility, sincerity, and commitment from all parties,” said Carter in a statement at the Group of Elders’ site.

Former Finish President Martti Ahtisaari, who was also on the trip along with Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland of Norway, talked about barriers to a quick peace in the current climate. “After my first visit to the DPRK, I believe that peace is possible, but the parties are unlikely to make much progress by demanding unilateral action of each other,” he said in a statement.

However, Stratfor analyst Roger Baker thinks that that talks could happen soon.

“It appears we may be nearing a breakthrough,” said Stratfor’s Roger Baker in a briefing video on the private intelligence firm’s site.

Baker says the presidential election campaigns getting started in the United States, and South Korea, as well as leadership changes in China could possibly open a window of opportunity for the talks to take place.

“It is politically beneficial to be seen to be making progress in North Korea and in the denuclearization of North Korea,” says Baker.

In addition to the Group of Elders’ meeting with the North, the Chinese have also sent delegates to South Korea; the United States will be meeting with the South, and back-channel talks are reportedly going on between the United States and North Korea. Baker says these may be leading up to a resumption of negotiations about the North’s nuclear program.

Baker thinks the United States, China, and South Korea are expecting North and South Korea to hold talks first, followed by North Korean-U.S. talks, and then reviving six-party talks—including Russia and Japan—may follow. Baker says this process is about “diplomatic niceties” and sorting out the interests and concerns for each country and diplomat.

Six-party nuclear talks with North Korea fell apart in April 2009 when North Korea launched a satellite despite international pressure. The U.N. Security Council condemned the launch—which ultimately failed—and expanded sanctions against the North.

North Korea responded by kicking nuclear inspectors out of the country and shutting down the talks. “The six-party talks have turned into a platform for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. … The DPRK will never participate in the talks any longer nor will it be bound to any agreement of the six-party talks,” reported the Korean News Service in April 2009, paraphrasing a statement by the DPRK.

The North also told the International Atomic Energy Agency at the time that it would resume its nuclear weapons program. Then the month immediately following, May 2009, Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device underground.

Several incidents since then have strained inter-Korean relations even more, such as the May 2010 sinking of South Korean naval ship the Cheonan, which the North denies responsibility for. Then in November that year, the North flagrantly fired 100 rounds of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea killing two South Korean marines and two civilians, and wounding 15 South Korean soldiers and three civilians.

Baker says if talks do take place the big question will be whether or not North Korea has the intention to put its nuclear weapons program on the table for discussion.