During my recent travels to North Korea and China, I received clear, strong signals that Pyongyang wants to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea and on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The components of such an agreement have been fairly constant over the past 16 years, first confirmed in 1994 by the United States and Kim Il-sung, then the North Korean leader, and repeated by a multilateral agreement negotiated in September 2005.
The basic provisions hold that North Korea’s old graphite-moderated nuclear energy reactor, which can easily produce weapons-grade plutonium, and all related facilities and products should be disabled under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency; that while the reactor is shut down, the United States should provide fuel oil or electric power to North Korea until new power plants are built; that the United States should provide assurances against the threat of nuclear attack or other military actions against North Korea; that the United States and North Korea should move toward the normalization of political and economic relations and a peace treaty covering the peninsula; that better relations should be pursued by North Korea, South Korea and Japan; and that all parties should strengthen their economic cooperation on energy, trade and investment.
The comprehensive agreement reached by the Clinton administration was disavowed in 2002 by President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, although North Korea reprocessed fuel rods into plutonium and tested nuclear explosives in 2006, good progress was made in its talks with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
But conditions have since deteriorated: the talks stopped in 2009, and that same year the United Nations imposed sanctions on Pyongyang after it conducted a second nuclear test and launched a long-range missile. North Korea also prohibited reunions between North and South Korean families.
However, there are now clear signals of eagerness from Pyongyang to resume negotiations and accept the basic provisions of the denuclearization and peace efforts.
In July, North Korean officials invited me to come to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and other officials to secure the release of Mr. Gomes. Those who invited me said that no one else’s request for the prisoner’s release would be honored. They wanted me to come in the hope that I might help resurrect the agreements on denuclearization and peace that were the last official acts of Kim Il-sung before his death in 1994.
I notified the White House of this invitation, and approval for my visit was given in mid-August, after North Korea announced that Mr. Gomes would soon be transferred from his hospital back to prison and that Kim Jong-il was no longer available to meet with me. (I later learned that he would be in China.)
In Pyongyang I requested Mr. Gomes’s freedom, then had to wait 36 hours for his retrial, pardon and release. During this time I met with Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the North’s Parliament, and Kim Kye-gwan, the vice foreign minister and chief negotiator for North Korea in the six-party nuclear talks. Both of them had participated in my previous negotiations with Kim Il-sung.
They understood that I had no official status and could not speak for the American government, so I listened to their proposals, asked questions and, when I returned to the United States, delivered their message to Washington.
They told me they wanted to expand on the good relationships that had developed earlier in the decade with South Korea’s president at the time, Kim Dae-jung, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.
They expressed concern about several recent American actions, including unwarranted sanctions, ostentatious inclusion of North Korea among nations subject to nuclear attack and provocative military maneuvers with South Korea.
Still, they said, they were ready to demonstrate their desire for peace and denuclearization. They referred to the six-party talks as being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.”
The following week I traveled to Beijing, where Chinese leaders informed me that Mr. Kim had delivered the same points to them while I was in Pyongyang, and that he later released the South Korean fishing crew and suggested the resumption of family reunions. Seeing this as a clear sign of North Korean interest, the Chinese are actively promoting the resumption of the six-party talks.
A settlement on the Korean Peninsula is crucial to peace and stability in Asia, and it is long overdue. These positive messages from North Korea should be pursued aggressively and without delay, with each step in the process carefully and thoroughly confirmed.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president and the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.