Donald Trump leaves this weekend for a 12-day trip to Asia, including stops in South Korea and China. Unless advisors keep a tight muzzle on him, there’s reason to worry that aggressive rhetoric could increase the risks of escalating into a deadly war with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
But former President Jimmy Carter has stepped up to point a direction to potentially achieving a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
Carter personally told National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster that Carter is prepared to go to North Korea to initiate peace talks, which could eventually lead to an agreement consummated by a trip by Trump to Pyongyang, similar to President Nixon’s world-changing peace trip to communist China in 1973.
Trump should take Carter up on it.
Trump in Pyonyang
Let’s call it the "Trump in Pyongyang" deal, a throwback to Richard Nixon’s 1971 trip to open relations with Mao Zedong’s communist China, which followed over two decades of hot and cold wars between two nuclear-armed nations.
If President Trump made a remarkable turnaround and actually initiated negotiations for a permanent peace treaty with North Korea—something that has evaded every President since Harry Truman—he could show that The Art of Deal is something more than a P.R. stunt.
Could the hope of joining only 4 other American Presidents who won the Nobel Peace Prize—[Teddy] Roosevelt, Wilson, Carter, and Obama—tempt Trump’s ego to at least give it a try?
It could save the planet from World War III.
To follow ex-President Carter’s suggestion would mean thinking outside the box and going big to attempt achieving a permanent Korean peace that has eluded every President of both parties since the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953.
It would mean thinking as big as Nixon, who despite extending the Vietnam War and resigning over the Watergate scandal, is best remembered for his 1972 China trip and his opening of relations with the nuclear-armed Chinese dictatorship in one of the most history-changing diplomatic achievements of modern history.
The Range of Options
Indeed, after reading the analyzing the full range of policy suggestions from experts across the political spectrum, Carter’s proposal is the very first to provide a flicker of hope that a more or less permanent peace could be achieved with the nuclear armed Korean dictatorship.
There simply is no viable military option. A preventive U.S. military strike on North Korea would likely lead to a North Korean attack on South Korea that could kill as many as a million people within days, including tens of thousands of American civilians and soldiers living in South Korea. A preventive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facility could even result in nuclear retaliation. Such an option is, or should be, unthinkable.
Economic sanctions, no matter how severe, never have and never will convince the North Korean regime to give up its nuclear program, which it considers essential to keeping itself in power. And the preservation of its power is the number one priority of the North Korean regime. A regime that tolerated over a million of its citizens dying from famine obviously puts the economic well-being of its own people a distant second to its own survival.
But diplomacy currently appears to be at a standstill--The U.S. insists that it will not negotiate until North Korea destroys its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in advance, and the North Koreans are determined to keep their nuclear deterrent to protect the regime from the fate of Ghadafi in Libya and Sadaam Hussein in Iraq who were deposed with U.S. military assistance after acceding to U.S. pressure to give up their nuclear programs.
What’s left then is American acceptance of a nuclear- armed North Korea, and reliance on mutually assured deterrence - that is, the threat that if one party attacked the other with nuclear arms, the attacked party would respond by destroying the other with its owned nuclear arms.
There may be no choice but some level of American acquiescence to a nuclear-armed North Korea. But even if that’s the case, it’s in the U.S. interest to negotiate, in effect, to limit, and ring-fence the Korean nuclear arsenal, to ratchet down tensions that could lead to an accidental nuclear or conventional war, and to establish some semblance of peaceful relations with North Korea.
The Terms of the Deal
Here are some possible elements of a large-scale peace initiative with North Korea:
A permanent Peace Treaty officially ending the Korean War—Although hostilities ceased in 1953 with a temporary Armistice, a Peace Treaty was never signed. Technically, the U.S. and North Korea are still at war with each other. Over 65 years after the armed conflict ended, this is just plain silly.
Security guarantees for North Korea, backed up and enforced by the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, the United Nations, and other members of the international community. This is what the North Korean dictatorship wants more than anything—An enforceable agreement that it will not meet the fate of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq or Muhamar Ghadafi in Libya.
In exchange, North Korea would have to agree to strictly limit the number and type of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and submit to tough, verifiable inspections to prevent cheating.
As North Korea demonstrates its adherence to such limitations, economic sanctions would be lifted step by step.
Somewhere during this process, the United States and North Korea would reestablish diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors.
Something along these lines would be a really big deal, far beyond what any American Presidents have contemplated before. And this is complicated stuff-- there’s obviously much more to a comprehensive peace initiative between the U.S. and North Korea that would have to be negotiated over months and years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
But a visit by former President Carter to North Korea as Donald Trump’s emissary could start the process.
Whatever one thinks of President Carter’s term in office, he was able to convince sworn enemies--Egypt and Israel--to sign a Peace Treaty in 1979, something almost no one thought possible. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize for this historic achievement. And whatever other Middle East conflicts have continued ever since, Israel and Egypt are still at peace.
As an ex-President, Carter has also successfully negotiated with North Korea on behalf of Presidents Clinton and Bush. In 1994, Carter negotiated the Agreed Framework with North Korea which limited North Korea’s plutonium program for eight years until it collapsed in a dispute with the Bush administration.
Two decades later, Carter flew to Pyongyang and negotiated the release of an American citizen who was being held in prison by the North Koreans.
In a Washington Post Op-Ed article, Carter wrote that “the next step should be for the United States to offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks.”
Carter has offered to initiate such talks. With all of Carter’s diplomatic experience in Korea and around the world, Trump should take him up on his offer.
The next step would be long and intensive behind the scenes negotiations, which would likely include Chinese, Japanese, and South Koreans diplomats as well, with the goal of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement.
Is the dream of permanent peace in Korea far-fetched?
Perhaps. But the idea of anti-Communist crusader Richard Nixon and Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong reaching a peace agreement seemed just as far-fetched at the time. But it happened. And as a result, the world is a safer and more peaceful place.
An ultimate peace agreement between the U.S. and North Korea is no more far-fetched.
And as Donald Trump once said during his Presidential campaign,
“What do you have to lose by trying something new?”