Why Jimmy Carter should be Trump’s messenger of peace on North Korea
Chi Wang says it is clear that increased sanctions and harsher rhetoric will only make the North Korean regime dig in its heels. Instead of demanding denuclearisation, the US ought to try an indirect approach, led by former president Jimmy Carter
The UN recently placed new sanctions on North Korea, the US independently sanctioned two North Korean officials, and Pyongyang called the UN sanctions an “act of war”. If this series of events seems familiar, it should. It is part of an ongoing cycle of North Korean missile tests, UN and US sanctions, and North Korean backlash against the sanctions.
While the Trump administration has made the Korean peninsula and the denuclearisation of North Korea a foreign policy priority, it is important to note that this is not a new issue. I served as the head of the Chinese and Korean section at the US Library of Congress until I retired in 2004. During my time there, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and weapons programme were key areas of concern, with Pyongyang withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in early 2003 and declaring it had nuclear weapons later that year.
I have continued to follow the situation. Time and again I have watched as the UN imposed sanctions, only to have North Korea test another missile or nuclear weapon and further develop its nuclear capabilities. This has been going on for more than a decade, and yet the United States and UN continue to turn to sanctions and demand denuclearisation. With tensions only escalating, and President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un repeatedly engaging in a battle of words, it’s time to re-evaluate the way we look at and approach North Korea.
The first thing policymakers need to acknowledge is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons aren’t just going to go away. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can say the US will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power all he wants, but the fact is, North Korea is a nuclear power. And it’s not just going to stop being one just because we refuse to “accept” it.
Any US strategy has to start from the knowledge that the North has nuclear weapons and that, if the US chooses pre-emptive military action, Pyongyang has the potential to retaliate with nuclear weapons, if not against the US, then against our allies in the region.
Next, the US needs to realise that sanctions aren’t working, just as they didn’t in the past. Claims that we simply have not reached the right level of sanctions yet, or that sanctions would work if China did more, fail to understand the limitations of sanctions. While sanctions do serve as punitive measures and certainly place economic pressure on their targets, they are unlikely to convince the leadership of a country to take action seen as detrimental to their self interest. This limitation undeniably applies to North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
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If Kim fears that America’s ultimate goal is to overthrow the North Korean regime, an idea that memories of the Korean war and Trump’s incendiary tweets lend credibility to, it makes no sense for him to give up his nuclear arsenal. After all, the concept of nuclear deterrence is based on the principle of mutually assured destruction. If North Korea no longer has nuclear arms, it no longer has a deterrent against the US advancing. The fate of regimes in Iraq and Libya serve as stark examples of what might happen if the North gave up its nuclear weapons.
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Even if Kim himself does not actually believe the US would attack, this narrative is an important part of his rhetoric at home. In many ways, the credibility of his regime and his hold on power are linked to the continued development of nuclear weapons and his ability to stand up to the US. Repeated missile tests and continued efforts to strengthen nuclear capabilities are part of North Korea’s long-standing strategy of showing the US, South Korea and other potential enemies what any attempts to overthrow the Kim regime might lead to. The late November launch of a intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Washington further solidified this message.
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With this understanding of North Korea in mind, it is clear that increased sanctions and harsher rhetoric are unlikely to convince the regime to change tack. In fact, they serve instead to further strengthen the regime’s narrative that the US is antagonistic towards North Korea and views it as an enemy. The back and forth between Trump and Kim has only increased tensions and escalated the potential for conflict.
What, then, is the solution? First, before any strategy for dealing with North Korea can be formed, the Trump administration needs to tone down its rhetoric. Talking about war and threatening military action can be dangerous and counterproductive when aimed at a person holding weapons of mass destruction, and has the potential to bring us to the brink of nuclear war.
Trump has said he will use military force, if necessary, to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons able to reach the US, despite numerous calls from world leaders, diplomats and even 58 retired American military leaders to try diplomacy first.
Trump’s argument for such a “pre-emptive measure” assumes that, if North Korea has the ability to use nuclear weapons against the US, then it will. However, the US does not automatically assume other nuclear-armed countries it has conflicts with will launch an assault, trusting in nuclear deterrence. Pakistan and India, despite their largely hostile relationship, have yet to devolve into nuclear war.
Using his nuclear arsenal would in no way strengthen Kim’s regime. It would prompt a military backlash from the US and the international community, and might lead to the fall of his regime.
Nuclear war is not in Kim’s best interest, but if Trump continues to threaten war, that might change.
The US also cannot expect China to solve the conflict on the Korean peninsula. While China definitely does not like the idea of a nuclear North Korea, that is where the US and Chinese agreement on the issue ends. China does not want war or regime collapse in North Korea or increased militarisation in the region. As North Korea’s neighbour, China will directly suffer from these actions, with refugees spilling over the border, foreign troops in its backyard, and decreased regional stability. Without considering crippling sanctions or military action, both of which would potentially lead to regime collapse, China does not have sufficient leverage on its own to influence North Korea.
North Korea claims it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from the US, so it is the US that must deal with Pyongyang directly. Bilateral dialogue is necessary.
The stated purpose of this dialogue, however, should not be to push for complete denuclearisation. That goal, if at all achievable, is still a long way off.
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Due to the current political climate and how difficult it would be for the US government to publicly de-emphasise its calls for denuclearisation or to meet Kim directly, a less direct approach might be best to initially open up conversation. Former US president Jimmy Carter, for example, has stated that he would be willing to travel to North Korea on a peace mission. Carter has previously visited North Korea and met local officials and citizens, which makes him uniquely qualified to serve as an intermediary and diplomatic emissary.
The top priority at the moment should be to prevent nuclear conflict. Only after dialogue is opened and tensions are reduced can potential agreements be reached.
A no-first-use agreement or a reduction in sanctions in exchange for a reduction in nuclear weapons, for example, are much more achievable goals that, while not denuclearisation, would go a long way towards increasing security and stability on the Korean peninsula and opening the door to future dialogue.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation