Carter Wins American's Release From North Korea

Melissa Block speaks with Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute, about former President Jimmy Carter's trip to North Korea to secure the release of American Aijalon Gomes. The release occurred as North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly was in China to introduce his youngest son — and expected successor — to top Chinese officials.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

An American held since January in a North Korean jail was flown to American soil today. Aijalon Gomes landed in Boston this afternoon, where he was greeted by members of his family. He'd been sentenced to eight years of hard labor after illegally crossing into North Korea in January. Former President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea to secure Mr. Gomes' release, which comes at a crucial moment for North Korea.

Leader Kim Jong Il has reportedly been in poor health, and a rare meeting of the North Korea Workers Party will occur next month. Many Korea watchers believe the issue of Kim's succession will be addressed there.

Joining me to discuss all this is Jack Pritchard. He's president of the Korea Economic Institute and former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JACK PRITCHARD (President, Korea Economic Institute): Well, thank you.

BLOCK: We might remember that last year, when President Bill Clinton went to North Korea to get the release of two American journalists, there was a picture that was released of President Clinton sitting next to Kim Jong Il very stiffly. No picture this time because President Carter did not meet with Kim Jong Il. What happened?

Mr. PRITCHARD: I think Jimmy Carter was stood up. I think that the leader had no intention of meeting with him and actually left town to avoid meeting with Jimmy Carter.

BLOCK: Left town to go to China. Now, let's talk about the meaning behind that visit. Talk about that.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, it looks as though the trip to China is two-fold, one to take his son on a little bit of a nostalgic tour to where the grandfather, the original leader of North Korea, went to school, and quite possibly to meet with the Chinese leadership in a bid to get a more official blessing of the succession process that will ultimately turn the reins of power over to the 28-year-old son.

BLOCK: This is his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Correct.

BLOCK: And what's known about him?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, there's very little known about him other than he went to school in Switzerland. I think there's an intensive effort to find out just who he is, what his character is like and what we can expect should he become the leader.

The initial reports that the U.S. government has is he may very well be a carbon copy of his father, very ruthless, et cetera, things that if you are hoping for a change in style, you may not get it.

BLOCK: You mentioned that the two Kims went to visit the school that Kim Il-Sung attended in China. And I gather this is not just a nostalgia trip. This is something that would have real meaning for North Koreans.

Mr. PRITCHARD: I think what it does is it tells to the North Korean people there is continuity from the grandfather to the father and the son. And we're doing this, tracing the footsteps of the original leader of North Korea, putting legitimacy behind the succession to an awfully young son.

BLOCK: What is China's role in the succession of the North Korean leadership?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, the Chinese hold a great deal of leverage over the North Koreans. They are the guarantor of the survivability of the regime in the short term.

It is not in the Chinese interest for the North Koreans to collapse, and so the Chinese are looking at the succession with a great deal of interest, hoping that the next leader will follow the recommendations and their path for more economic reform and some degree of openness that will reduce tension along the border and perhaps improve the situation in the peninsula.

BLOCK: We mentioned the meeting next month of the North Korean Workers Party. What's the significance of that meeting? What would happen?

Mr. PRITCHARD: We anticipate that the son is going to be named to a senior position within the Korean Workers Party. Now, in the past, under his father, the emphasis has been on the National Defense Commission.

But I think this is one way in which the son can gain some legitimacy while being a senior person on the party, but yet not at the National Defense Commission level that may raise some eyebrows since he is so young.

BLOCK: Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. PRITCHARD: My pleasure.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Jack Pritchard. He's president of the Korea Economic Institute and former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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