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How Jimmy Carter and I Were Wrong on North Korea—And How Carter is Still Wrong

December 13, 2010 | by | Topic: American History & PresidentsPrint Print

Guest Commentary

It is not often that I am struck speechless by any individual act of political commentary. Yet, former President Jimmy Carter accomplished just that through a recent editorial in the Washington Post. To put it bluntly, the article is a poignant example of what appeasement looks like in black and white. Of course, “appeasement” is a strong word, viewed as name-calling; but it is a descriptive term that I have studied at length, and that applies here.

In a nutshell, Mr. Carter’s argument is that North Korea’s recent actions merely confirm that “Pyongyang is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ cease-fire of 1953.”

Did you catch that? It’s not a misprint. North Korea’s recent revelation of increased uranium enrichment and deadly bombing of targets in South Korea are not the erratic and dangerous provocations of the most erratic, dangerous and provocative regime on the planet. Rather, they are actually “consistent messages” to the West of a readiness to acquiesce.

Dr. Paul Kengor has suggested in these pages that Mr. Carter is only the latest among “duped” progressives in the United States who have been misled by pro-communists and the North Koreans. I beg to differ. To be duped implies the preexistence of at least a minute possibility that the person had been capable of perceiving the situation correctly in the first place, but was ultimately convinced otherwise.

Not so here. For Mr. Carter to land on such a spectacular level of separation between reality and perception requires a worldview hopelessly skewed by utopian ideals and driven by an all-consuming desire to see every single conflict resolved peacefully, come what may. President Carter isn’t being duped, he is being enabled.

On this topic, I know of what I write. You see, I am a reformed “dupe-ee.” In 1998, I published an article in Peace Review (10:2) titled “The Irony of U.S. Policy Towards North Korea.” My argument was that despite being saddled by what I called “inherently problematic native logic,” the appeasement of North Korea as of 1998 had been a surprising success.

I was wrong. Having written a doctoral dissertation on the topic of appeasement, including a detailed analysis of how the policy of appeasement had failed to avert war in the 1930s, I was motivated to try to find a positive example. Could there be a case where appeasement worked? That example seemed to present itself with the so-called “Agreed Framework” concluded between the United States and North Korea in 1994, led by Jimmy Carter.

The agreement, occasioned by North Korea’s threatened departure from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), provided for massive energy aid. The goal was to help convert North Korea’s fledgling weapons-grade reactors to light-water/nuclear-reactor technology, along with securing a commitment by North Korea to remain in the NPT.

My analysis highlighted “substantial progress,” such as improved North Korean diplomacy, economic liberalization, and improved North-South Korean relations. The all-carrot-and-no-stick approach seemed to be causing real behavior change, I concluded, while also averting the outbreak of violent conflict.

Alas, my assessment was quickly overtaken by events. Already in 1999, there was a significant naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea; in 2002, yet another hot flare-up that killed several South Korean sailors. By 2003, the U.S.-North Korean deal had completely collapsed, with more bad news to follow: 2006 saw further underground nuclear tests; three years later, in 2009, Pyongyang launched missiles over the Sea of Japan, conducted further nuclear tests, and formally rejected the 1953 armistice. The list goes on, up to and including the events of recent weeks.

To be fair, few believe there are easy answers to this problem. I don’t know of anyone eager to use force. Moreover, successive U.S. administrations of both parties have fallen prey to North Korea’s serial use of brinksmanship to gain more aid and achieve gradual acceptance of its nuclear program. Finally, China’s and even South Korea’s positions have been persistently conflicting, unclear and problematic. It’s a true conundrum.

In fact, the only person on the planet who does not seem burdened with uncertainty in this matter is Mr. Carter. That is because he is a committed appeaser. In order to avoid debilitating cognitive dissonance, appeasers must view the rogue actor’s grievances as legitimate and its aims as rationally limited.

In this sense, Carter’s views fit perfectly. As Carter says, the Kim regime’s actions are only “designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future,” emanating from their desire to “avoid domination by others.”

It’s a breathtaking example; an object lesson in appeasement thinking. Appeasing the North Koreans, the world’s most egregious agitators, has only resulted in unending cycles of successively more dangerous crises.

President Carter is still wrong on North Korea.  Let’s hope the current administration is not.

R.B.A. Di Muccio

R.B.A. Di Muccio

Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the Political Science Department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.

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