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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Elders in Pyongyang: The Greater Fool Theory

by | May 2nd, 2011 | 03:46 pm
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The delegation of “Elders”—Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, and Mary Robinson—are predictably being lambasted after appearing to achieve little if anything during their recent visit to Northeast Asia.  For the second time in recent months, Kim Jong-il refused to receive Carter (instead sending a relatively non-substantive bureaucrat), and this time did not even deign to release an imprisoned American into Carter’s custody as he had done during his previous visit. Yet Carter made the astonishing comment that “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.” Condemnation was swift. Washington journalist Chris Nelson wrote that “it would be difficult to convey the official and unofficial contempt, no other word is applicable, for Jimmy Carter’s latest performance. “ My friend Bruce Klinger at the Heritage Foundation described Carter’s performance as “yet another sanctimonious effort… his latest iteration of a predictable pattern of coddling dictators and blaming the shortcomings of those regimes on the United States and its allies. “ Carter then proceeded to Seoul where according to an eyewitness account, out of apparent pique at the State Department, he disrespected Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, who, to her credit, maintained her professional composure. If Chris Nelson’s reporting is accurate, the feelings of Ambassador Stephens’ boss toward the former President are, well, mutual.

In South Korea, much of the commentary focused on how Kim Jong-il  did not “need” Carter and co.  In the Daily NK, Kim Yong Hun cited two commentators:   “Choi Jin Wook, senior researcher for the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, “Kim Jong Il has already delivered his message to the U.S. and South Korea through China as much as he wanted, so he may not have felt a need to meet Carter and his companions.”  Choi added, “Kim Jong Il may have thought it was not a significant meeting because Carter was visiting as a private citizen without any particular message from the U.S. administration.” Professor Kim Yeon Su of the Korean National Defense University believes, “Kim Jong Il may have thought the meeting with Carter and the Elders was unnecessary because South Korea, China, and the U.S. have already reached an agreement with the ‘Three Phrase Measure’ to resume the Six-Party Talks.”

So far, so good.  But let’s step back for a moment. Kim Jong-il is the head of an increasingly failing and isolated state.  A multinational delegation of statesmen representing about as sympathetic a group as he is likely to encounter this side of Beijing comes to visit.  So, presented with this opportunity, what does he do?  He humiliates his guests. So, who is the bigger fool?

Kim is not a complete moron: at least he sent Carter to Seoul with a letter for Lee Myung-bak (who also declined to meet with the delegation). But the text contains ambiguities and by delivering the message via his minion, he denied Carter the opportunity to clarify the message’s meaning, thereby diminishing its impact. Again, who is the bigger fool?

A final, speculative possibility: maybe Kim is no fool, rather just too ill to receive guests.