By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Aug. 27 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has snubbed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter after all, dashing hopes that the renowned peacemaker's first trip to Pyongyang in 16 years could pave the way for a breakthrough in the deadlocked ties between the foes.
Few doubted Carter would meet with Kim when he visited Pyongyang this week on a mission to bring home an American citizen detained in the communist nation since January. But the reclusive leader left on the night Carter arrived on an extremely rare second trip to China within a three-month period.
Carter is considered a symbolic figure in the Korean Peninsula nuclear and peace issues. The 85-year-old built his image as a peacemaker and a troubleshooter when he visited North Korea in 1994 amid intensifying nuclear tensions and met with then leader and national founder Kim Il-sung.
His negotiations led to a landmark nuclear disarmament deal between Pyongyang and Washington, known as the Agreed Framework, though the agreement later fell apart with the outbreak of another nuclear standoff in late 2002.
Carter extended his stay in the North for another day, but Kim did not returned home by the time he left Friday with the freed American, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegal entry in January.
"I think it is a diplomatic gaffe," Lee Sang-hyun, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute, said of the lack of a meeting between Kim and Carter. "Kim Jong-il could have wanted to show the United States that he is not an easy counterpart to handle."
Lee also said that Kim's cold shoulder toward Carter could also be a reaction to the hard-line U.S. stance on the communist regime that includes placing tough financial sanctions on the country and staging massive joint military drills with South Korea in the wake of the March sinking of a South Korean warship.
Another possible reason for Kim's unexpected move could be that the totalitarian leader might have wanted to show the people that he is strong enough to snub a former American president, Lee said, as the regime is apparently working on a leadership succession scheme.
Carter arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday and had talks and dinner with Kim's deputy and the country's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, later in the day. That contrasts with last year's visit to Pyongyang by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Clinton also went to the North to bring two detained American journalists home. But his two-day stay there included a meeting with a broadly-smiling Kim, though Clinton sought to project a "businesslike" look toward the leader of a nation that conducted a nuclear test a few months earlier in defiance of the international community.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a Korea University professor, said that Clinton's attitude could have embarrassed Kim and ultimately affected his decision to skip a meeting with Carter, as the U.S. government has repeatedly stressed that Carter's trip would be purely private and humanitarian.
"Kim Jong-il could have rescheduled his trip to China if he wanted to meet with Carter, but he didn't," the professor said. "He might have wanted to avoid facing the same situation as last year."
Kim's snubbing of Carter may have also been an effort to show the domestic audience his toughness, and his Chinese trip during Carter's visit to Pyongyang could be seen as a message to Washington that the regime has the backing of Beijing, the professor said.
Still, the North's Korean Central News Agency said Friday that the North's No. 2 leader reiterated to Carter Pyongyang's willingness to denuclearize and the ex-U.S. president's trip "provided a favorable occasion of deepening the understanding and building confidence between the two countries."
"North Korea's release of Gomes is not a bad thing, but there were much higher hopes when Carter went there," Yoo said. "In that sense, it's like he came back almost empty-handed."
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