I am pleased to be back in Pyongyang on my third visit to North Korea. It’s a privilege to be able to visit a place that is quite mysterious to most people – and this time I am here with three of my fellow Elders – Mary Robinson, Gro Brundtland and Martti Ahtisaari.
Gro has been here before and we have been recalling our previous visits. She was here in 2001 as Director General of the World Health Organisation and will be taking particular interest in our planned visits to a hospital and to better understand food issues here.
I was here last year to negotiate the release of a US citizen – and before that in 1994, when Kim Il Sung – known here as the Eternal President – was still alive. At that time, North Korea’s nuclear programme was in its infancy. On a memorable six hour boat trip, I discussed nuclear and security issues with Kim Il Sung who agreed to freeze his nuclear programme. He was very warm and friendly towards my wife Rosalynn and me. Keep in mind that our countries were (and still are) officially at war, with a ceasefire prevailing.
Sadly he died shortly afterwards, and his son Kim Jong Il succeeded him as leader. Kim Jong Il pledged to honor his father’s commitments and continued his father’s policy, and in October 1994 North Korea and the US adopted a Framework Agreement which committed North Korea to denuclearisation.
Kim Jong Il also agreed to take part in a summit meeting with the then President of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung whose “Sunshine policy” was very helpful in building better relations. This kind of people-to-people contact is vital in trying to encourage dialogue and build sufficient confidence and trust between former enemies to allow them to reach lasting peace.
Since then – relations have gone up and down between North and South Korea but they are currently at rock bottom. There is no official dialogue on the key issues that divide the two countries, tensions are very high, and the US, as South Korea’s key ally, also refuses to engage directly with North Korea. Also, neither the US nor South Korea is at this time willing to assist with the desperate food shortage in North Korea.
We are hearing consistently throughout our busy schedule here in Pyongyang that the North wants to improve relations with America and is prepared to talk without preconditions to both the US and South Korea on any subject. The sticking point – and it’s a big one – is that they won’t give up their nuclear programme without some kind of security guarantee from the US.
We will be working hard in our few days in Pyongyang to learn as much as we can about the North Korean position. I hope we will be able to return to the US and Europe with a positive and constructive message. We have been told that our visit here is seen as helpful in establishing a positive atmosphere and that the people in both North and South expect a lot from us.
It is to my mind a tragedy that, more than 60 years after the Armistice that ended the Korean War, North and South Korea have not signed a peace treaty. My country, the United States, is South Korea’s guarantor, which creates enormous anxiety among the North Korean people and drains their political energy and resources.
I hope that this visit by the Elders will help North Korea become less mysterious to outsiders and that we can provide a glimpse of the country’s development ambitions as well as the serious challenges it faces.
In order to succeed we will all need to work together – especially the United States and South Korea. The warmth with which I am always greeted in Pyongyang makes me hopeful that our nations can, with political will on all sides, find peace at last.