SEOUL, South Korea — Jimmy Carter has a remarkable track record on North Korea, credited with a 1994 nuclear deal that may have averted a war. But does the former American president, currently on a three-day mission to Pyongyang, have any peacemaking magic left?
Officials in Seoul and Washington have so far put little stock in his ability to engineer a breakthrough in long-stalled, acrimonious nuclear negotiations.
Han Sung-joo, South Korea's foreign minister during Carter's 1994 trip, said in an interview that "both South Korea and the U.S. government are a little bit wary of Mr. Carter trying to represent North Korea in a better light than it actually is."
Despite widespread skepticism, however, interest is still high in whether the Nobel Peace laureate might thaw frigid ties between North Korea and the outside world. Carter generates real respect and fondness in the North.
Carter and the former leaders of Finland, Norway and Ireland are in Pyongyang this week, hoping for talks with leader Kim Jong Il and his son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un. They've met with the foreign minister and the president of the North's parliament, though it was unclear whether they would talk with the Kims.
In a blog entry posted Wednesday, Carter said he had consistently heard during his trip that the North wants to improve ties with Washington "and is prepared to talk without preconditions to both the U.S. and South Korea on any subject. The sticking point — and it's a big one — is that they won't give up their nuclear program without some kind of security guarantee from the U.S."
Carter's group is wading into a difficult situation: It has been more than two years since nuclear negotiators from the United States and neighboring nations last met with the North in an effort to persuade it to abandon its atomic weapons programs.
Since then, the North has conducted missile and nuclear tests and proudly unveiled a new nuclear facility that could give it another way to make atomic bombs. Late last year, the North Korean military rained artillery shells on a front-line island, killing two South Korean civilians as well as two marines. Seoul also accuses Pyongyang of sinking a warship in March 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
North Korea has also made progress in building what could be a light water nuclear power reactor, according to commercial satellite imagery taken in early March but released Thursday by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. While ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, such a reactor gives the North reason to enrich uranium.
The United States says it won't push forward on nuclear talks until South Korea is satisfied that the North has taken responsibility for last year's bloodshed. North Korea has shown no willingness to apologize and denies involvement in the ship sinking.
Enter Carter, 86, whose credentials as a North Korea specialist largely stem from his drama-filled trip to Pyongyang in 1994. At the time, the North had expelled international nuclear inspectors and was threatening to destroy Seoul. Many feared war would erupt.
Carter, traveling with then President Bill Clinton's approval, met directly with Kim Il Sung, the country's revered founder and father of the current leader, just weeks before the president's death.
Those talks set up U.S.-North Korean negotiations that resulted in a deal that called for freezing the North's nuclear facilities in exchange for proliferation-resistant power reactors. The accord fell apart in 2002, after the George W. Bush administration claimed North Korea had embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program.
Carter is traveling this week as a private citizen. The State Department says he is carrying no special messages.
South Korea has played down the visit, saying it didn't have high hopes that Carter's trip would change North Korea's attitudes.Comment on this story
Conservatives, never fans of the liberal Carter, have been blistering about his trip to Pyongyang.
The Wall Street Journal in an editorial Wednesday said the message the North Koreans give Carter "to carry back is likely to be a demand that the U.S. send someone with greater stature to Pyongyang or they will continue to escalate tensions."
But Carter's visit could also be valuable at a time when, with few official contacts, determining Pyongyang's motivations and goals is often guesswork and left to unofficial envoys.
Government talks are preferable, Joel Wit, a former State Department official responsible for implementing the 1994 deal, wrote recently. "But at a time when they aren't talking, unofficial channels of communication run by seasoned practitioners can be indispensable."