Once again giving the lie to the constant imperialist refrain that the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is an isolated country, with a closed door, that refuses negotiations and dialogue, former US president Jimmy Carter paid his third visit to the country at the end of April. His previous visits were in 1994 and 2010. This time he made the visit as the head of a delegation from ‘The Elders’.
The Elders describe themselves as “an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity”.
Joining Carter on the delegation were Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Gro Harlam Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and former Director General of the UN World Health Organisation, in which latter capacity she previously visited the DPRK in 2001; and Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland.
In visiting both parts of Korea, as well as China, Carter’s delegation set themselves a number of aims, which included to:
“Learn about the humanitarian food crisis in north Korea and help to alleviate it;
“Understand more thoroughly the diplomatic and military differences between north and south Korea; and
“Learn what might be done in the longer term to promote a denuclearised and unified Korean peninsula, with a permanent peace treaty to replace the fragile and non-binding ceasefire.” (‘Trip report by former US president Jimmy Carter to the Korean peninsula’, theelders.org, 2 May 2011)
Over the last months, the DPRK has experienced an exceptionally severe winter, a prolonged drought, and intensified sanctions on the part of the imperialist powers and south Korea, leading the country to once again appeal for international food aid. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the DPRK this year faces a national food shortage of 886,000 tons, affecting around six million people, a quarter of the population, with children, pregnant and lactating women being especially vulnerable. In his report, Carter noted that:
“Long-standing economic boycotts and sanctions are an obstacle to economic progress and an additional punishment for innocent and already suffering people.”
In a blog from Seoul, Mary Robinson wrote on 29 April:
“The Elders will be pressing Europe, the US, south Korea, China and all those in a position to help, to assist the people of north Korea by increasing food aid and we hope governments and agencies will react rapidly. Food is a basic human right and the suffering of the population must be decoupled from politics. ”
In a 28 April statement, the whole delegation called for the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to the DPRK and for an early resumption of dialogue on all outstanding issues among the parties concerned.
Carter said: “We will urge the international community to be generous in sending food aid to the DPRK as a matter of urgency. ”
In comments of his own, Carter went further, correctly accusing his own government of a major human rights violation:
“One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for south Korea and the US and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the north Korean people is really a human rights violation. ” (‘Ex-president Jimmy Carter calls for north Korea aid’, BBC News Online, 28 April 2011)
Reporting the personal message he and his delegation received from the DPRK leader Comrade Kim Jong Il as they were about to depart the country, Carter wrote:
“He expressed a warm welcome, appreciation of our efforts for peace and humanitarianism, a desire to reduce tension and improve inter-Korean relations, and support for all negotiations and inter-Korean dialogue, including a summit meeting with President Lee of south Korea. He pledged to fulfil the 19 September 2005 joint statement for denuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula and called for early resumption of six-party talks. It was clear this was the message he wanted delivered in Seoul and to other leaders, with emphasis on the summit meeting. ” (‘Trip report’, op cit)
In a blog he wrote from Pyongyang, Carter recalled his first visit to the DPRK as follows:
“On a memorable six-hour boat trip, I discussed nuclear and security issues with Kim Il Sung, who agreed to freeze his nuclear programme. He was very warm and friendly towards my wife Rosalyn and me. Keep in mind that our countries were (and still are) officially at war, with a ceasefire prevailing. ”
He continued: “It is to my mind a tragedy that, more than 60 years after the Armistice that ended the Korean War, north and south Korea have not signed a peace treaty. My country, the United States, is south Korea’s guarantor, which creates enormous anxiety among the north Korean people and drains their political energy and resources.
“I hope that this visit by the Elders will help north Korea become less mysterious to outsiders and that we can provide a glimpse of the country’s development ambitions as well as the serious challenges it faces.
“In order to succeed we will all need to work together – especially the United States and south Korea. The warmth with which I am always greeted in Pyongyang makes me hopeful that our nations can, with political will on all sides, find peace at last.” (theelders.org, 27 April 2011)
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the reasonable, and just basically decent, position adopted by Carter in calling for dialogue leading to a peace treaty, in calling for humanitarian aid and affirming that to deny people food as a political weapon is a violation of human rights, ensured that the warmth of his reception in Pyongyang was matched only by the coolness of his reception in Seoul and on his return home to the USA.
Senior south Korean leaders refused to see him and right-wing hoodlums were instigated to hold demonstrations denouncing him. In the USA, right-wing newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal sought to ridicule his sincere efforts and to excoriate him as some kind of dupe of, or messenger from, Pyongyang. Hilary Clinton declined a request for a meeting, in which Carter had hoped to brief the Secretary of State on his visit.
The visit of Carter’s delegation, and the contrasting responses to it in Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington, once again highlights who is really interested in peace on the Korean peninsula and who would rather withhold food from women and children in a cruel and cynical attempt to bring a sovereign country to its knees.
The anti-war movement and progressive people should support the just demands of the DPRK for the armistice agreement to be replaced by a peace treaty, for the withdrawal of US troops from south Korea, and for the Korean people to be able to sort out their problems on their own and reunify the country on the basis of the principle ‘By our nation itself’.