A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

By Quinones, C. Kenneth | Arms Control Today, December 2006 | Go to article overview

A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions


Quinones, C. Kenneth, Arms Control Today


A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, The Power of a Peacemaker, and North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions By Marion Creekmore, Jr. Public Affairs, August 2006, 406 pp.

Not even North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test could make Pyongyang's persistent pursuit of a nuclear arsenal a priority for the Bush administration. Its preoccupation with the Middle East, particularly Iraq, and the war on terrorism has relegated the potential collapse of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime to a regional issue for Northeast Asia.

Ambassador Marion Creekmore's recently published book, A Moment of Crisis, takes us back to the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-1994, when preventing a nuclear-armed North Korea and preserving the integrity of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were Washington's national security priorities. His very readable and authoritatively documented book focuses on former President Jimmy Carter's June 1994 intervention in the crisis, including a visit to Pyongyang and meetings with North Korean leader Kim II Sung.

For the first time, Carter has permitted research into his personal papers and the Carter Center's records to tell the story of how and why he and his wife Rosalyn, who accompanied him as his sole note taker in all meetings with Kim II Sung, intervened in the crisis. Revealed are the detailed personal accounts of Carter's thoughts at the time and the unedited record of his discussions with President Bill Clinton, South Korean President Kim Yong-sam and North Korea's leadership.

A Moment of Crisis, however, is as much about the present and future as it is about the past. Creekmore demonstrates that the United States, to succeed in negotiations with Pyongyang, must avoid humiliating North Korea's leadership and engage North Korea as an equal worthy of diplomatic dialogue and negotiation. He also reminds us that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is an issue of global concern.

Creekmore's work complements and expands on previously published works about the crisis, such as Leon Sigal's Disarming Strangers-Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea and Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis by Joel Wit, Dan Poneman, and Robert Gallucci. These accounts concentrate on examining U.S. policy toward North Korea through the eyes of those in Washington who made the policy and the U.S. journalists who reported it. Creekmore relies on these books to portray the backdrop for Carter's trip to Pyongyang but then goes beyond them.

In 1994 the United States and North Korea were on the brink of war. Their year-long bilateral negotiations were at an impasse. Despite Washington's warnings that it would press for UN sanctions if North Korea refueled its nuclear reactor, Pyongyang did so. It then announced that it would consider UN sanctions "an act of war" and declared itself to be in a "state of semi-war." Washington began reinforcing its military forces in South Korea to defend its ally better and to deter a possible North Korean attack more effectively.

At root, it was these developments that prompted Carter to act; but the direct spur came from Carter's frequent communications with his longtime friend and then-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney-Creekmore provides new information about these exchanges. Laney and General Gary Luck, the United National and U.S. Combined Forces commander in South Korea, shared the fear that war would become inevitable if UN sanctions were imposed. Creekmore explains that Laney's concerns motivated him to encourage Carter to meet Kim II Sung. We learn of Carter's extensive preparations for his trip, his efforts to reassure officials in Washington and Seoul that he would not engage in negotiations with North Korea, and the details of his meetings with Kim II Sung and his most senior advisers.

Despite his promise not to do so, Carter did engage in negotiations with Kim II Sung.

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