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White House Worries Carter May Imperil N. Korea Talks


WASHINGTON — Former President Jimmy Carter is planning another personal diplomatic mission to the Korean peninsula, and Clinton Administration officials are worried that the irrepressible but controversial crisis mediator could upset delicate negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.

Some Administration officials are so concerned that they are considering urging President Clinton to ask Carter not to make the trip until after the current round of nuclear talks in Geneva has been concluded. The talks are expected to resume this week.

"Carter is a two-edged sword for the Administration," one senior official said. "He played a constructive role in dealing with North Korea in his earlier visit and could well play a constructive role in promoting a North-South dialogue. But another trip would become more delicate if he becomes a factor in the talks on nuclear weapons."

U.S. negotiators in Geneva are struggling to resolve a dangerous impasse that developed during the past year when North Korea balked at allowing international inspectors to determine whether it had been diverting plutonium for nuclear weapons production.

Carter has set no date for his new mission. But both North and South Korea have invited him to visit the region, and he has made it clear to associates that he plans to act soon.

His stated goal is to urge the leaders of both countries to begin a dialogue aimed at eventual reunification--an issue that is only indirectly linked to the nuclear problem.

Administration officials, however, fear that the strong-willed Carter might stray beyond the broad question of North-South relations and involve himself in the nuclear issue.

They recall that he has proven to be a highly independent emissary, most recently in Haiti and in an earlier visit to North Korea.

For example, in assessing North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, who was seen by U.S. analysts as an exceptionally ruthless dictator before his death in July, Carter offered a relatively benign view in a recent report.

"He is very friendly toward Christianity, having been saved from a Japanese prison in China by Christian pastors," Carter wrote. "Also, he is an avid hunter (killed two bears and 200 boars this past year) and quite interested in fishing."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, discussing Carter's role during an interview, stopped short of saying he would recommend a delay in Carter's trip. But he left little doubt that the Administration does not want the former President involved in the nuclear issue, which he said "needs to be worked on carefully and with as much precision and discipline as we can."

Two other senior officials, who asked not to be identified, suggested that Carter should be asked to delay a Korean trip at least until the nuclear talks have ended.

With the new trip to the Korean peninsula looming, State Department officials have tried to work out an arrangement with the former President that will permit him to participate but will carefully circumscribe his role.

Christopher, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Carter Administration, said he believes that he and Carter have ironed out their differences over the proper role for the former President to play in Administration policy.

"One thing for certain," Christopher said, is that "there'll be better coordination in the future" between Carter and the State Department.

Carter, after reading news accounts of his differences with the State Department shortly after returning from his recent trip to Haiti, telephoned Christopher and set up a Sept. 24 meeting in Plains, Ga.

They met for 2 1/2 hours at Carter's house. Carter has not commented on the substance of the meeting, although during an appearance Saturday in Washington to receive a J. William Fulbright Prize for fostering international understanding, he praised his "good friend Warren Christopher" and told a State Department gathering in jest: "Our next task is to work for more domestic understanding."

In the interview, Christopher said that during the meeting they agreed that the former President's role in foreign policy poses "a complicated situation that has to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis" when it involves Carter traveling to meet with foreign leaders.

"We've been through a lot of things together," said Christopher, who served as Carter's chief negotiator for the Iranian hostage crisis. "It was a friendly, instructive session. We went through the background of various events, and coming out of it he recognizes the responsibility that I have as secretary of state."

Christopher said Carter "has three roles: as world citizen, as possible mediator invited by parties of a dispute and as a representative or envoy of the President. And each of the roles must be thoroughly thought out or it might invite confusion, especially on the part of others."

James R. Lilley, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea during the Ronald Reagan Administration, delivered a blunter assessment of Carter's potential to help or hinder:

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