[KS] KSR 2007-02:_A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions_, by Marion Creekmore, Jr.

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sun Jan 7 03:10:06 EST 2007

A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions, by Marion Creekmore, Jr. With an introduction by Jimmy Carter. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. xxvi + 406 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-58648-414-9. Cloth $26.95.

Reviewed by Mark E. Caprio
Rikkyo University
e-mail: caprio at rikkyo.ne.jp


Few week-long excursions by a private citizen merit the attention of a complete monograph. Yet, when the traveler is a former president, on a determined mission to halt a potential war, exceptions can be made. Marion Creekmore’s A Mission of Crisis provides an extremely detailed, but very readable, account of Jimmy Carter’s 1994 trip to Pyongyang. Here the former president held discussions with DPRK leader Kim Il Sung which set the table for U.S.-DPRK negotiations that forged the Agreed Framework.[1] Creekmore’s review of Carter’s preparations for the trip, his discussions with DPRK officials, and the reception that greeted his return provides one of the more informative summaries published to date of attitudes held by U.S., ROK, and DPRK officials regarding their country’s interrelations.

The background for Carter’s interest in traveling to the DPRK was his growing concern over the deepening rift between the United States and the DPRK from late 1993. Prior to his decision to visit Pyongyang, The DPRK had announced its decision to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was preparing to order International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors out of the county, and had begun to remove fuel rods from its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. These steps signaled to many its intention to develop nuclear weapons, or to add to an existing cache that the CIA reported it might already have developed.[2] The Clinton administration was considering a number of responses ranging from surgical strikes on DPRK nuclear facilities to pressing the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on the communist state. The DPRK government interpreted either response as a belligerent act of war and threatened to respond in kind.

Jimmy Carter’s primary aim was to determine firsthand whether the DPRK favored conflict or resolution (p. xxi). He had been invited on a number of occasions to visit the DPRK by the Kim regime. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton had previously declined his offers to mediate the crisis. In June 1994 he declared his intention (rather than requesting permission) to make the trip. Though unenthusiastic, the Clinton administration had no choice but to bless Carter’s intentions and offer its support. (As president, Carter had signed legislation permitting Americans to travel to the DPRK, thus legalizing his trip as a private citizen.) It briefed Carter on the current state of affairs and on the United States’ position in the dispute. The Clinton administration emphasized that Carter’s trip was private, a function of the Carter Center, rather than an official emissary. Carter clarified this point in all his discussions with ROK and DPRK officials.

Creekmore describes Jimmy Carter as “uniquely qualified” for this mission. Carter’s training as a nuclear engineer armed him with a technical understanding of the primary issue that confronted the United States and the DPRK. His efforts as president to remove all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula had gained him favor with the DPRK regime. He had also demonstrated a talent for facilitating conflict resolution during the talks between Israel and Egypt that led to the 1978 Camp David Accords. Carter saw this experience as a model for negotiating ROK and DPRK differences. Finally, the significance of the occasion, a former U.S. president visiting the DPRK capital, demonstrated to the DPRK leadership his respect for their country (pp. 21-2).

Carter set two conditions before agreeing to make the trip: First he insisted that he be allowed to “cross the border between visits to their capitals.” More than a symbolic gesture, by permitting Carter to do so, both sides demonstrated their recognition of the “pre-mediation” character of his mission (p. 25). Second, Carter insisted that he be granted “substantive talks” with Kim Il Sung to ensure that his time in Pyongyang was not spent negotiating with lower-level diplomats (p. 27). After receiving the necessary assurances Carter informed President Clinton of his decision to visit the DPRK.

Carter’s preparation for the trip was extensive. He met with Clinton administration officials-Robert Gallucci traveled to Plains, Georgia to brief Carter and Carter visited Washington, D.C. for a second briefing prior to his departure. He also met with ROK Ambassador Han Seung Soo at the ROK embassy, and with ROK President Kim Young Sam in Seoul. In addition, Carter also conferred with private citizens who had traveled to Pyongyang, including the Reverend Billy Graham. He received mixed advice. U.S. officials advised him to maintain a “stern and inflexible posture.” Kim Young Sam lectured Carter on the Kim Il Sung regime-the “most corrupt in the world”-and warned that Kim intended to exploit Carter’s visit to advance DPRK interests (pp. 117-18). He found the advice provided in a report by Stephen Linton (who served as Graham’s aide during the evangelist’s trip to Pyongyang), that Carter apply a “steady, friendly and determined approach” (p. 77), more useful. Carter also learned through Linton the importance of allowing the proud DPRK leader to “maintain face,” a point that remained with Carter throughout his time in Pyongyang.

Most interesting is Creekmore’s account of Carter’s discussions with Kim Il Sung, even though Creekmore was unable to attend two important sessions. During the first meeting Creekmore was at the DMZ with a message to be sent to Clinton from the ROK should the Carter-Kim meeting prove unsuccessful. Their second discussion, aboard Kim’s private yacht, was limited to Carter, Kim, and their translators. He was included in a third, less-formal meeting, aboard the yacht that combined business with light talk between Kim, Carter and their wives. Creekmore recreated these meetings through consultations with participants, and by accessing Carter’s private papers including his diaries. The author presents Kim Il Sung as very much in charge, although at times apparently uninformed of developments. Kim’s requests for clarification regarding the decision to deport the IAEA inspectors led Carter to believe that he was ignorant of these plans (p. 161). Carter skillfully exploited Kim’s authority during his meeting with Kang Sok Ju to combat the Vice Minister’s attempts to retreat from Kim’s promises. 

Creekmore presents Kim Il Sung as cooperative. Kim readily agreed during their first meeting to all that Carter proposed: The DPRK remaining in the NPT, the IAEA inspectors remaining at their posts, and the DPRK freezing its nuclear activities. The two also discussed the DPRK acquiring light water reactors. Carter clarified that although the U.S. could not provide this technology, it would assist the DPRK in acquiring it. Carter’s ease in gaining the DPRK leaders acquiescence was perhaps smoothed by Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who discussed these same issues with Kim Il Sung a few days prior to Carter’s arrival. Still, Carter’s prestige as former president-though one might consider whether Kim overrated Carter’s influence on the Clinton administration-allowed the DPRK leader to make a stronger commitment than he could have through Harrison.[3]

It was, however, Carter’s interview with CNN after his first day of meetings with Kim Il Sung and Kang Sok Ju that consummated the deal. The story from the Clinton administration’s side is well known.[4] Creekmore presents the story from Carter’s perspective. By announcing on CNN Kim Il Sung’s promises, Carter locked both sides into conducting the third round of negotiations that eventually produced the Agreed Framework. His interview angered members of the Clinton administration who felt that Carter should have briefed them before going public with this information. Some also felt (correctly) that Carter used the interview to undercut the Clinton administration’s main weapon to combat DPRK nuclear efforts (pp. 183-4).[5] 

Carter did make critical mistakes. His informing Kim Il Sung that the U.S. would allow domestic reprocessing should the DPRK subject this process to IAEA inspections, although allowed by the NPT, was inconsistent with U.S. policy. The United States had previously objected to ROK attempts to develop reprocessing capacity and they were not about to allow the DPRK this capacity. While Robert Gallucci recalls briefing Carter on this point in Plains, Georgia,[6] Creekmore writes that neither he nor Carter recall their broaching this topic (p. 157). Both Koreas renounced developing reprocessing capacity, a process that brings a state closer to weapons capacity, when they signed the 1991 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.[7] Carter made it a point to clarify the U.S. position on this during discussions with Kim the following day (p. 192). Potential misunderstanding also arose when, before CNN cameras, Carter told the DPRK leader that the United States “had stopped the sanction activities at the UN” as a result of promises made by Kim the previous day. Carter clarified this later-albeit off camera-by reminding Kim that this represented his personal view, rather than U.S. policy (p. 189). The media would center on this “careless choice of words” in their criticism of Carter’s mission.

A Moment of Crisis enriches our knowledge of the DPRK and U.S.-DPRK relations in a number of important ways. The account adds to a growing library of first-hand accounts on the DPRK.[8] Creekmore treatment of Carter’s meetings with Kim Il Sung offers readers a rare picture of DPRK negotiating strategies in action.[9] Thirdly, he adds important information to our knowledge of the process that resulted in the Agreed Framework, to date the most successful joint effort completed by the United States and the DPRK.[10]

This story’s epilogue is not a happy one. Jimmy Carter’s mission to Pyongyang faced criticism even before he returned from Pyongyang. Creekmore notes that this criticism took two forms: attacks over Carter having weakened Clinton’s hand toward the DPRK (by criticizing sanctions) and for his being “gullible, naive, or an appeaser” (239). Similar criticism dogged Clinton after his administration negotiated the Agreed Framework with the DPRK. By late 2002 the Bush administration had effectively terminated all progress gained over this period and the DPRK reversed course: it left the NPT; it deported the IAEA inspectors; and it began removing the 8000 rods that had been stored. Four years later the DPRK tested its first nuclear bomb. Critics continue to blame Carter and Clinton’s efforts to engage the DPRK for this failure. Yet, it is important to remember that the DPRK did honor all of the promises that it made during Carter’s visit up through 2002, even after the United States had reneged on its commitments.

It is unfortunate that to date the Bush administration has failed to exploit the lessons learned from the 1994 crisis. While claiming that the crisis can be solved by negotiations, it stubbornly refuses to directly engage the DPRK to understand its views on the crisis. Creekmore’s account of Carter’s trip to Pyongyang reminds us that, in the former president’s words, as we live “in an imperfect world,” we must negotiate with those in power to “maximize the chances of alleviating or preventing the problem” at hand (p. xxv). Never have such words held greater significance than at present.



[1] Previously the only published account of this visit was Jimmy Carter, “Report of Our Trip to North Korea, June 1994,” Korea Report (Fall 1994).

[2] In February 1994 CIA director James Woosley reported as a “worst case scenario” the DPRK having enough reprocessed plutonium to build one or two nuclear weapons. This report, built on disputed evidence, later came to be reported as (erroneously) the DPRK possessing one or two weapons (p. 13).

[3] Selig Harrison credits Carter for curbing the crisis, a result of the former president “not [being] associated with the counterproductive threat of sanctions.” See Selig S. Harrison, Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 215.

[4] See Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 157-8; Harrison, Korean Endgame, pp. 215-20 and Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 226-9.

[5] Carter remarked to Creekmore just after his CNN interview, “That killed the sanctions resolution…The Chinese will never permit it to get out of the Security Council now” (p. 179).

[6] See also Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical, p. 202.

[7] C. Kenneth Quinones’ review of this book in the December 2006 issue of Arms Control Today (http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_bookreview.asp) suggests that Kim Il Sung subtly corrected this error by suggesting they move to “de-nuclearize the peninsula.”

[8] Among these include Kang Chol-Hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, trans. by Yair Reiner (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Erik Cornell, North Korea Under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise, trans. by Rodney Bradbury (London: Routledge/Curzon 2002); Michael Harrold, Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley, 2004); and Hazel Smith, Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2005). A number of documentaries-“A State of Mind” and “The Game of their Lives”-have provided a more balanced introduction to the DPRK.

[9] This topic has attracted much interest over the past decade or so. See Scott Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korea’s Negotiating Behavior (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999); Chuck Downs, Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1999).

[10] See also Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers; Selig S. Harrison, Korean Endgame; and Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical.



Caprio, Mark 2007
Review of _A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions_, by Marion Creekmore, Jr. (2006)
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 2
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-02.htm <http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-02.htm> 


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