Building on the resumption of talks brokered in June by former President Jimmy Carter, the United States and North Korea signed an agreement this fall that was a major step toward ending 40 years of hostility and easing international fears about a possible nuclear buildup in the North.
In announcing the pact, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Bob Gallucci thanked President Carter for restarting the negotiations that led to the October agreement. "President Carter played a key role," he said, in averting sanctions and in reopening the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
President and Mrs. Carter visited North Korea in June at the invitation of then-President Kim Il Sung as private citizens representing The Carter Center. The Center had maintained an active dialogue with the governments of both North and South Korea, and the Carters made the trip in hope of encouraging a renewed dialogue between Pyongyang and the West.
The United States and other countries had long suspected that the North was trying to build nuclear weapons, and over the summer, those fears began to mount. The day before the Carters arrived in Pyongyang, the North Korean government withdrew its membership from the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and threatened to expel IAEA inspectors. The Clinton administration began pushing for U.N. sanctions against the North. With no means of direct communication, some began to fear the two countries were heading toward war.
The Carters had been invited to North Korea several times since 1991, and in the face of heightening tensions, that invitation was renewed. "After I talked to President Clinton, we agreed that Bob Gallucci would brief me on the situation. After that meeting, I told President Clinton I would like to accept the North's invitation," President Carter said. "I was very pleased when he approved my trip."
On June 16, the Carters, accompanied by Carter Center Director of Programs Marion Creekmore, became the first people to cross the demilitarized zone from South Korea to the North and then North to South since the two were divided following the Korean War.
After two days of talks, President Carter broke the nuclear impasse when President Kim agreed to freeze his country's nuclear program in exchange for the resumption of his dialogue with the United States. As a gesture of good will, he also promised to allow joint U.S.-North Korean teams to search for and recover the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War.
The Clinton administration received diplomatic confirmation of President Kim's commitments just days after President Carter returned home. "President Carter was very faithful in articulating the policy of our government," President Clinton said. "He provided a forum in which the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, could respond the way he did. And I'm very pleased about it."
President Clinton called the Carter trip "the beginning of a new stage in our efforts to pursue a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. We hope this will lead to the resolution of all the issues that divide Korea from the international community."
The talks between the U.S. government and Pyongyang continued after the death of Kim Il Sung in June. The signing of a U.S.-North Korean agreement reached in Geneva on Oct. 21 included provisions that North Korea will neither restart its existing nuclear plant nor reprocess the reactor's spent fuel rods, which could be used to produce weapons- grade plutonium. Construction of two larger plants has been halted, and all three will be dismantled and replaced by light-water reactors. International inspectors are again monitoring the North's nuclear program.
"The Geneva talks confirmed all of Kim Il Sung's promises to President Carter. Our hope is that the Carters' trip will mark the establishment of diplomatic and cultural ties with the West for this long-isolated Communist nation," Dr. Creekmore said.
After leaving North Korea, President Carer carried a message from President Kim Il Sung to South Korean President Kim Young Sam requesting a summit between both countries. The South Korean leader accepted the invitation that would mark the first meeting between top leaders of both countries since the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1953. The summit, which was scheduled to begin in July, was postponed following Kim Il Sung's death. "I hope that the time may be soon be right for this meeting, and I stand ready to assist in any way deemed appropriate by both sides," President Carter said.
The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Gil Yon, recently traveled to The Carter Center to present President Carter with the original signed letter that Kim Il Sung had faxed to him confirming the agreements the two had made in June. The letter was the last one President Kim wrote to an individual outside his country before his death, and it was given to President Carter as a token of the North's appreciation for his role in reopening talks.
President Carter met with the South Korean ambassador to the United States, Han Seung Soo, the following day and accepted a letter from President Kim Young Sam expressing the South's gratitude as well.
"This is my life's work, to make efforts through The Carter Center, in a strictly unofficial way, to address conflicts in the world," President Carter said. "We will continue to follow the situation on the Korean Peninsula with great interest."
In the News: Korea". . . Carter richly deserved the thanks Clinton gave him. For if the escalation of the crisis had continued, the administration might well have been pressed to attempt a task that no one has ever performed and that may be impossible: the forcible de-nuclearization of a nuclear power. ... Carter may have spared the world further steps along the path to this insanity."
--Newsday, June 26, 1994
"President Clinton's announcement on Wednesday came as a relief: North Korea had persuaded him that it was suspending its nuclear program for now. Consequently, the U.S. would resume high- level talks with the North on July 8. Mr. Clinton paid tribute to Jimmy Carter's mission in Pyongyang: `It is the beginning of a new stage in our efforts to pursue a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.' "
--Editorial from The New York Times, June 25, 1994
"Carter has emerged as the top U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter after successes in North Korea and now Haiti."
--USA Today, Sept. 22, 1994
". . . Jimmy Carter did a great service for his country and for mankind during his recent visit to North Korea."
--Carl Rowan, syndicated columnist, July 11, 1994
President Carter met with South Korean leaders and North Korean President Kim Il Sung (above) in June 1994, paving the way for an accord to ease international fears about a possible North Korean nuclear threat.