Former President Jimmy Carter writes in today’s USA Today that we are very close to another Korean War and says we must do what we can to avoid it. He acknowledges that the Korean regime is borderline insane

North Korea is an isolated country, poverty stricken, paranoid, apparently self-sacrificial and amazingly persistent in international confrontations, as is now being demonstrated. It is a cultural and almost sacred commitment for its leaders not to back down, even in the face of international condemnation and the most severe political and economic pressure.

A previous example of this stubbornness occurred in 1968, when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence-gathering ship. Despite the best efforts of President Lyndon Johnson to marshal international support and to prevail with economic punishment and military threats, President Kim il Sung never deviated from his basic demands, which included an embarrassing public apology from the United States for “spying” on his country. After 11 months, President Johnson accepted all the demands, and the crew was released.

Notwithstanding their abysmal economic failures and the resulting hardships of their people, North Korean leaders have never deviated from a commitment to military strength.

but nonetheless thinks we should placate them:

There was another crisis in 1994, when Kim il Sung expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and threatened to begin reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant. The U.S. government refused to talk to North Korean leaders, and made plans for economic sanctions and a military attack. As the crisis escalated, The Carter Center was finally given reluctant permission from President Clinton for me to visit Pyongyang. A satisfactory agreement was concluded and later confirmed by both governments, with participation by South Korea, Japan and others. But neither side honored all the commitments.

In fact, North Korea honored none of their commitments, as anyone with an IQ above room temperature and any sense of history would have expected.

Carter believes that President Bush’s labeling the regime as part of the Axis of Evil helped create this present crisis and that we should try to fix things:

There are other issues, but the basic North Korean demand is a firm non-aggression commitment from the United States, which U.S. officials continue to reject. The U.S. insists first on a complete end to the North Koreans’ nuclear program, which they have refused to accept. If neither side will yield or compromise, then an eventual military confrontation seems likely. The United States can prevail, but with terrible human casualties in both North and South Korea.

There must be verifiable assurances that prevent North Korea from becoming a threatening nuclear power, with a firm commitment that the U.S. will not attack a peaceful North Korea. This is a time for sustained and flexible diplomacy between our two governments, to give peace and economic progress a chance within a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Having acknowledged that the North Koreans are totally unwilling to compromise, period, one has to wonder about this prescription. Presumably, all of the “compromising” would have to be done by the U.S. Why would we foreswear the use of force when the other side continues to build a nuclear arsenal and make threatening statements and moves?

Update (1351): I don’t mean to imply above that I think Carter has a below-room temp IQ. He’s obviously extraordinarily intelligent. Unfortunately, I think his amazingly optimistic outlook on international politics clouds his judgment. He honestly believes that simply being nice to people like Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro will make the world a better place. I wish it were so but find almost all evidence pointing in the other direction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    Because it would be the nice thing to do?

  2. Matthew says:

    So that Carter can then go to North Korea and gush about how beautiful Ms. Kim is?

  3. Tom says:

    I think that if Jimmy Carter thinks that the US should not go into North Korea, it is the right thing to do. Betting against Jimmy has been almost as profitable as betting against the Cowboys.

  4. BigFire says:

    Well, Jimmy have to shift the blame somewhere. Afterall, he’s instrumental to the 1994 agreement that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

  5. marvin says:

    And just what force are we going to use in Korea? They are calling the Bush Bluff and they will prevail. Let’s elect some people with military experience to implement a military strategy. It would have probably worked in Iraq, it may work in Korea.

  6. Kevin Drum says:

    Jeez, James, did APSA make you cranky, or what? Carter says specifically, “There must be verifiable assurances that prevent North Korea from becoming a threatening nuclear power….” Obviously he’s acknowledging that both sides have to compromise.

    As you well know, a nonagression treaty wouldn’t prevent us from using force if NK used it first. If we could somehow figure a way to give them the nonagression treaty, which costs us nothing since we don’t want to attack them anyway, in return for verified disarmament, why would you reject that?

    I don’t have any idea whether such an agreement is possible, of course, but I’d sign it in a minute if it were.

    There are few aspects of the right that I find more dispiriting than its continuing vilification of Jimmy Carter regardless of what he says and regardless of the facts of his accomplishments (not just his failures). You do yourself no credit when you jump on this bandwagon.

  7. James Joyner says:


    I actually like Jimmy Carter personally and give him a lot of credit for the current state of our military strength because of his (or, more precisely, his SECDEF Harold Brown’s) championing of the offset strategy. He’s unfairly villified as anti-military because of his opposition to some questionable spending projects.

    My criticism of Carter is that he’s wildly optimistic about the character of rather loathsome characters such as the Kims in Korea and Castro in Cuba and talks in terms of moral equivalence between them and the U.S.

    Obviously, if we could get the DPRK to give up their nukes and allow a tough verification regime in exchange for a promise by the U.S. to be nice, I’d be for it. But, as Carter himself explains in the piece, that ain’t gonna happen because Kim Jr. demands that we make all manner of concessions before doing anything, even though he’s already proven that agreements mean nothing to him.

  8. What we’ll eventually have to do is simple:


  9. Matthew says:

    There are few aspects of the right that I find more dispiriting than its continuing vilification of Jimmy Carter . . .

    Kevin, do you read your own comment section, ever? It’s continuing vilification of Bush one day, Cheney the next, Reagan the day after that, Bush the elder the next day, and finally, vilification of Joe Lieberman just to be bipartisan. Oh, but I guess they all deserve continuing vilification since they’re not Jimmy.

    The “hollow military” charge against Carter is, as James observes, unjustified. (Especially since much of it obtains from Carter’s reasonable plan to scrap the wasteful B1 bomber project.) But what really really annoys right-wingers (and some moderate liberals) about Carter is his Panglossian behavior around international thugs. As The New Republic has reported, the Clinton administration used to get exasperated to no end with Carter whenever he would come along and stick his nose into American foreign policy at a time when Clinton was trying to act tough. Carter sabotaged our policy in Somalia and North Korea, and pretty much hijacked the show in Haiti (though thankfully that turned out for the best).

    As a man, Jimmy Carter is a person of unimpeachable character who is capable of great charity towards his fellow human beings. Few former politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, can match him in this regard. As an ex-president, however, Jimmy Carter is a consummate meddler and a threat to the international security policies of both parties. No conservative has to apologize for holding that view.

  10. Paul says:

    Well said Matthew.

  11. Anonymous says:

    (Sticking my nose into the conversation)

    “There are other issues, but the basic North Korean demand is a firm non-aggression commitment from the United States, which U.S. officials continue to reject.”

    I think what troubles me the most about this statement is Carter toatlly ignoring the root problem.

    North Korea isn’t really afraid that we will attack them out of the blue simply because we feel like it…

    North Korea wants carte blanche, no interference, tie our hands so to speak so that they can do whatever they feel like doing and have no one to call them on the carpet for it.

    This isn’t about curbing in America’s aggression or name calling to North Korea…That’s the version that Carter and Jong would have you believe…No, it’s really about action with impunity by the North Koreans.

    To act with out bearing the brunt of the consequences of their actions…aim missles at Japan? Hey, we signed a non-aggression treaty with the N. Koreans…we wouldn’t be able to do a thing.

    Imagine if you will what would have happened if Carter had promoted his view of international diplomancy during the Bay of Pigs confrontation.

    We are in a way, standing in the same well worn path that has been walked down in the past. And I do not believe Carter has learned from those lessons what is needed to resolve the situation that we face today.

  12. whatever says:

    Yes, send Mr. Carter to negotiate with NK and he can come back with the promise to have “Peace in our Time”. It ALWAYS pays to sign a treaty with an insane dictator.