SEOUL — South Koreans are divided over Jimmy Carter's call for unconditional food aid to North Korea, reflecting their ambivalence over the 39th president's 35 years of activism on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea's totalitarian government has requested food aid since the mid-1990s. South Korean liberals argue that the aid is necessary to prevent millions in the North from starving, while conservatives counter that without proper monitoring, food aid only props up Kim Jong-il's regime.
During a visit to South Korea in April, Mr. Carter declared food as basic human right.
"For the South Koreans and the Americans and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really a human rights violation," he said.
Even Mr. Carter's sympathizers here have bristled at the comment, in which many saw a hideous moral equivalence — that President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak bear greater responsibility for North Korean suffering than Mr. Kim.
"I think many people are very cynical about him because he talks about human rights and he used to talk about human rights abuses in South Korea, but he never mentions North Korean human rights problems," said Nam Jeongho, foreign editor for the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea's biggest newspapers. "He seems to be trying to help North Korean regime."
Kim Young-hee, the paper's editor-at-large, calls Mr. Carter's rhetoric "unbalanced."
"He thinks, unjustly, that the serious food shortage in North Korea and suffering of the people are mainly caused by South Korea stopping the aid," Kim Young-hee said. "But he doesn't go deeper to the cause — why we stopped it."
Mr. Lee's conservative government said it will not resume major food aid to the North — or hold high-level bilateral talks — until Pyongyang apologizes for sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean island last year.
Fifty South Koreans, including two civilians, were killed in the military attacks. Pyongyang has denied involvement in the sinking of the warship and has accused Seoul of provoking the artillery barrage.
Press representatives for Mr. Carter could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Carter has long sparked both resentment and gratitude among South Koreans — sometimes from the same person.
"Jimmy Carter has many different images," said Moon Chung-in, political science professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "He was a bad president for Koreans.
"We welcomed his criticism of human rights violations by [1963-79 President] Park Chung-hee, but we hated his plan to withdraw American troops from South Korea," he said, referring to a campaign promise that Mr. Carter pursued despite the near-unanimous opposition of South Korean officials and his own advisers.
Mr. Carter redeemed himself during the 1994 nuclear crisis, when his personal diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung helped avert a second Korean War, which the Pentagon estimated would have killed as many as 1 million people.
That mission is "accepted as a great success," Mr. Moon said, but on Mr. Carter's most recent visit, "our society is more divided."
"I don't think there are many international leaders who still have as much sympathy and understanding for the North Korean regime as President Carter," a high-ranking government official recently told a group of visiting reporters on a trip sponsored by the East-West Center.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.