When I saw a video clip of John Bolton speaking on Fox News about Jimmy Carter's impending visit to Pyongyang, my first thought was, "This should be good." Actually I thought Bolton expressed the crux of the issue quite well; perhaps, aware that on Fox News he would be preaching to the choir, he refrained from his usual vituperation.
"I understand the emotional pull of trying to get this hapless American released," Bolton says. But, "The precedent that he's setting... puts more Americans in jeopardy, because it says to the North Koreans in effect, if you hold an American who comes into the country, poses no national security threat, but you threaten to lock 'em up unless you can get a former president to come, it simply provides North Korea... with the incentive to hold Americans unjustifiably."
"Hapless" is a charitable choice of words to describe the current captive in question, Aijalon Gomes. Following the precedent of Robert Park, who was also influenced by the same hyper-nationalist Christian group in Seoul, he crossed into North Korea last winter out of apparent compassion for the plight of North Koreans and a desire to do something to help. His actions, however, will likely only end up making things worse.
The North Korean regime wrings tremendous propaganda value out of these presidential visits. They love nothing so much as a photo op which makes it seem as if the US on equal terms with North Korea; it gives legitimacy to the regime and makes people feel like they are "winning." Last year when Clinton visited to negotiate the release of the two American journalists, their spin on it was that the American leader, terrified of North Korea's military might and nuclear weapons, had come to beg for mercy.
I also enjoyed a remark by a South Korean expert quoted in Asia Times Online which I thought was particularly clever: "I am not sure whether Kim Jong-il would want to meet Jimmy Carter. Within a month of Carter meeting Kim Il-sung, Kim Il-sung died." I had forgotten about this, but it is true that Carter's last visit and the elder Kim's death were so close together that the two events must be inextricably linked in North Koreans' minds. And the younger Kim's health is none to good these days. If he meets with Carter during this visit, and then suffers another stroke in the near future, the mild-mannered former president could quite possibly be suspected of being a harbinger of death!