As the heavily staged mourning for the “Dear Leader” grinds on, it’s worth noting that former US President Jimmy Carter has reportedly sent his personal condolences to North Korea upon the death of the old dictator and wished his son and successor Kim Jong-Un “every success” in the future. According to the Washington Times:
A dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Mr. Carter sent the message to Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent.“In the message Jimmy Carter extended condolences to Kim Jong Un and the Korean people over the demise of leader Kim Jong Il. He wished Kim Jong Un every success as he assumes his new responsibility of leadership, looking forward to another visit to [North Korea] in the future,” the KCNA dispatch read.
The Carter Center staff was on holiday and could not be reached for comment by the paper. One suspects, however, that were the report inaccurate, the former President would have found the time to deny it.There are several possible rationales for Carter’s missive: ideological sympathy for the Kim family dynasty in Pyongyang isn’t one of them. As an ex-head of state, perhaps he does this sort of thing for protocol reasons for every such occurrence. But this seems unlikely–with 200 member states of the UN, he would be spending a lot of time writing notes. Did the former President send his sympathies to the Pinochets or the Gaddafis? Both suffered tragic losses; surely they would have appreciated some spiritual balm from his healing hands.More likely, Carter likes to think he still has a useful role to play in diplomatic outreach to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The world of diplomacy is surrounded by a world of hangers on, wanna-bes and formerlies: people who want to be “channels” of communication or otherwise play a role as unofficial emissaries in the Game of Thrones. During a long and active ex-presidency, Jimmy Carter has spent more time than many watching for chances to play this role, and he lives in the hope that his special touch and gifts will allow him to reconcile the US with hostile states.There are worse dreams for a man to have, but the chances are that if the North Koreans have anything serious to say, they won’t say it to President Carter. A persistent illusion of ex-statesmen is that they can bridge gaps between Washington and various places where relations are bad: Cuba, North Korea, Iran and so forth. Consequently, there is lots of ‘playing diplomat’ going on, with much media coverage, and few actual results.Very rarely does this stuff matter. Generally, the serious players on both sides like to do the diplomacy themselves. Just look at Kissinger and the opening of China. This is even more true in today’s world, where such diplomacy can take place in a myriad of arenas outside the particular countries in question. Sometimes contacts made through civil society can lead to diplomatic exchanges, but a country like North Korea, where there is no civil society and the totalitarian, tightly controlled state apparatus jealousy watches all contact with foreigners, is a particularly poor target for free lance diplomats.Besides, North Korean and American officials have no difficulty speaking when they choose. Both sides are involved in the six party talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and there are other venues as well. When I visited Shenyang, China, I learned that North Korean and U.S. diplomats stationed in that city often attend the same functions in the course of business. Normal instructions to those on the American side was not to seek engagement, but those instructions can always change–and change on the North Korean end too.All this suggests that Jimmy Carter, a man whose relationship with the current White House is not always easy, will not be playing a significant role in any new US-DPRK (North Korea=Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea or DPRK in dipspeak) talks. If progress is to be made in U.S.-North Korean relations, it will happen among officials who currently represent the two governments.For now, the Lamb of Georgia remains a solution in search of a problem.