There is no foreign-policy issue that is as urgent for the United States today as North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Understanding that new ideas are sorely lacking, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN’s Jake Tapper that, notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s hawkish rhetoric about destroying North Korea and humiliating Kim Jong-un as “ Little Rocket Man ,” the United States is still in fact interested in a diplomatic outcome to the crisis.
The gigantic problem with the diplomatic approach, of course, is that neither the United States or North Korea appears interested in such a process. But there may be one man who possesses the gravitas, name recognition and history with Pyongyang to reawaken diplomacy out of its slumber: former President Jimmy Carter.
Thrusting the thirty-ninth President of the United States into the North Korean nuclear dilemma brings up several inevitable questions. The first: why would Jimmy Carter have any more success than the dozens of U.S. secretaries of state, undersecretaries and special envoys who over the years have attempted to work a negotiation with the Kim regime? The second question: why now?
The answer to the latter question is somewhat obvious but cannot be overstated enough. North Korea’s nuclear and missile development is fast approaching the point where Washington and its Asian allies will no longer be able to do anything about it short of a catastrophic war or recognition of North Korea as a formal member of the nuclear weapons club. It has long become fashionable to say that there are no good options to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but the trope happens to be true . Every North Korea policy that successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, have settled on has either failed to produce the objective of Pyongyang’s denuclearization or has only been a temporary solution.
Negotiations with the Kim dynasty have had short-term successes and long-term failures over the previous twenty-five years. Pyongyang is notorious for signing accords in return for economic, humanitarian and political concessions, only to violate its terms months or years later. The February 2012 “Leap Day agreement” is the most recent case. That deal provided Pyongyang with 240,000 tons of food aid and U.S. statements pledging an intent for a peaceful resolution in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the re-entry of nuclear inspectors into the country. Weeks later , Kim Jong-il authorized the launching of a satellite into space, an event Washington labeled as a violation of the arrangement.
Even the 1994 Agreed Framework, the one diplomatic accord that did in fact have some success in disabling Pyongyang’s plutonium program, collapsed roughly eight years later when the U.S. intelligence community caught the North Koreans secretly building a uranium enrichment capability.
The other options on the table, the use of military force to destroy Pyongyang’s facilities or more economic sanctions to squeeze the regime’s finances further, would either result in an incredible loss of life on the Korean Peninsula (twenty thousand South Korean dead during the first day of a war, according to estimates from the Pentagon) or would take a long period of time to work—assuming further cuts to North Korean imports, exports and banking work at all .
Combined with an erratic and increasingly dangerous war of words between President Trump and North Korean officials, the present situation is at best stalemated and at worst on the cusp of a confrontation. The time is ripe for a deescalation of tensions before miscalculation leads to something more deadly. Although negotiations with the Kim regime are always difficult and rarely successful, it is hard to see any deescalation occurring without dialogue.
Why would Jimmy Carter be the man for the endeavor? Because the former president has performed a similar role before, has had some success with the North Koreans in the past, and has expressed an interest in traveling to Pyongyang to prevent what he views as an escalating spiral of hostility.
The one relatively successful agreement with Pyongyang, for instance, would not have been possible were it not for Carter’s private trip to North Korea to meet with then-Leader Kim Il-Sung. Like the Trump administration today, the Clinton administration at that time was engaged in a national security crisis with the Kim dynasty over the regime’s plutonium program. The White House was actively preparing for a preventive strike against North Korea’s plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and may have even executed such a strike if Carter failed to arrive at an outline with Kim of a diplomatic solution. Clinton administration officials would eventually formalize Carter’s understanding into the Agreed Framework, which shut down the reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for deliveries of heavy fuel oil and promises of diplomatic normalization with the United States.
Two decades later, Carter would fly to Pyongyang yet again to win the release of an American citizen who was detained and convicted to eight years of hard labor. The prisoner release was another notch on Carter’s belt and one more indication that his persistence and diplomatic skills could deliver concrete results.