How Trump Can Avoid New Korean War: Emulate Nixon’s Opening To China

11/06/2017 12:04 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2017

Donald Trump’s 12-day Asia trip threatens to bring war with North Korea closer.

Aides say Trump plans to use the trip to bring “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

But the peaceful tools available to Trump—essentially pressuring China and other nations to enforce strong sanctions—have little more chance of success than sanctions imposed by prior presidents of both parties.

A regime that would allow over a million of its citizens to die of starvation cares less about its people’s well-being than avoiding the fate of Sadaam Hussein and Muammar Ghadafi, who were deposed with American military force after agreeing to give up their nuclear programs. Sanctions strong enough to successfully convince the Korean regime to forsake its nuclear weapons are almost inconceivable, leaving Trump with few policy options.

And there’s always the danger that provocative rhetoric from Trump while in Asia could escalate the confrontation with Pyongyang.

Trump In Pyongyong?

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. McMasters that Carter would be 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.

Let’s call it the Trump in Pyongyang deal, a throwback to Richard Nixon’s 1971 trip to open relations with Mao’s communist China, following hot and cold wars between nuclear-armed nations over a two-decade period.

If President Trump made a remarkable turnaround from his aggressive rhetoric and actually negotiated a permanent peace agreement 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 PR stunt.

Could the hope of joining only four other American presidents who won the Nobel Peace Prize—Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama—tempt Trump’s ego to at least give it a try?

It could save the planet from World War III.

The Range Of Options

Following ex-President Carter’s suggestion would mean thinking outside the box and going big to attempt achieving the 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—one of the most history-changing diplomatic achievements of modern times.

<em>Nixon Meets Mao Zedong</em>
Nixon Meets Mao Zedong

Indeed, after studying the full range of policy suggestions from 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.

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 arsenal to deter an American military strike to overthrow the regime.

What’s left then is American acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea and reliance on mutually assured destruction ― 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 viable policy alternative to some level of American acquiecesance 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.

What Might A Korean Peace Deal Entail?

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 international agreement that it will not meet the fate of Sadaam Hussein or Muhamar Ghadafi.

· 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.

Former President Carter’s Role

Whatever else one may think of Carter’s presidency, 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.

<em>Former President Carter Arrives in Pyongyang to Negotiate Release of American Prisoner.</em>
Former President Carter Arrives in Pyongyang to Negotiate Release of American Prisoner.

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.

After that, the next step would be long and intensive negotiations behind the scenes, which would likely include the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans, as well, with the goal of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement.

Far-fetched?

Is the hope of permanent peace in Korea far-fetched?

Perhaps. But 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 President Trump said during his presidential campaign, “What do you have to lose by trying something new?”

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