The little known story of how one ex-president undermined the White House and set the stage for North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons
As Trump cancels the planned summit with North Korea, we remain hopeful. Certainly international action against a client of China and one that is armed with nuclear weapons is a very complex business.
Amazingly, the American constitutional order has put in place a real estate developer, inexperienced in electoral politics or the military, to lead America’s preparation and defense at a divisive time in the country
President Trump has shown more willingness to face this problem head-on then any of his predecessors. We should all wish him success in this regard.
No doubt there will be many trials ahead in what remains, an extremely dangerous and tense situation
As the world watches it’s worth revisiting how and why we find ourselves in this position.
Involvement of the US in this catastrophic evil will require careful thought and an examination of our past mistakes. Both Republican and Democrat administrations have made errors of judgment there.
The most egregious mistakes, however, were made by an out-of-office politician whom the public often credits as a humanitarian.
We speak of Jimmy Carter.
Here is the little published story on how one man’s ego and perhaps arrogance set the stage for the debacle we now face.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 1992-93 that communist North Korea was not complying with its regulations.
North Korea responded by announcing that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1993.
In 1994 North Korea began threatening to build nuclear weapons.
President Bill Clinton was faced with a very difficult dilemma. He was reluctant to impose sanctions because North Korea said it would regard those as an act of war.
However, Clinton understood the existential threat the world might face with a nuclear armed North Korea. Sources from that time indicate President Clinton and he staff began serious plans for a military intervention.
As former assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recalled later: “We felt that that would bring a potentially hostile nation to the United States across the nuclear finish line, and that that wasn’t acceptable to us. We were not, by any means, confident that we could talk them out of taking that step. Therefore we looked into the possibility of compelling them by force to set back their nuclear program.”
Clinton echoes this sentiment himself: “North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb” and he began an intense diplomatic effort to prevent that from happening.
He asserted that all options were on the table including a military response.
As Clinton assembled his Chiefs of Staff and Generals to plan ahead he received notice that former President Jimmy Carter, by then out of office nearly fifteen years, was offering to visit North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung the father of current dictator Kim Jong Un as a gesture of good will.
Although many members of Clinton Administration were wary of Carter overstepping his authority, Clinton allowed the visit, making sure that Carter was well aware that he was visiting as a private citizen only.
Carter was informed that he was not speaking on behalf of the administration and was not authorized to make any kind of agreements with North Korea.
So in June of 1994, Mr. Carter entered North Korea and met with Kim Il Sung.
Carter quickly went rogue. Unbeknownst to President Clinton, Mr. Carter unilaterally promised that even economic sanctions would not be forthcoming, despite U.S. stated willingness to use military means if necessary.
Although he had zero authority in the current administration and was a private citizen, Mr. Carter brokered an agreement.
President Clinton and his staff saw CNN the next day and were shocked to see Jimmy Carter, on live television, announcing that he had in fact hammered out an agreement with the Korean dictator himself.
The Clinton administration was apparently shocked and furious that Mr. Carter had overstepped his bounds. Members of his staff were reported to have gone as far as to describe Mr. Carter’s actions as near traitorous
Mr. Carter himself would admit to a reporter that his public stunt on CNN was an attempt to force the hand of the current administration: “I can’t deny that I hoped that it would consummate a resolution of what I considered to be a very serious crisis,” he said
When asked about details of the agreement, Mr. Clinton gave this amazing answer: “None of us have talked directly with President Carter. We don’t know what he said.”
In 1995 in a private interview former President Gerald Ford said that Bill Clinton was furious that Jimmy Carter had put himself into the negotiations in North Korea.
Mr. Ford added: “I think he injected himself in the North Korea negotiations unwisely. The White House was very upset, I can tell you that.”
Although many people doubted Mr. Carter’s agreement could be enforced or effective, President Clinton, feeling boxed in or looking for a way out, acquiesced.
Historian Douglas Brinkley, a Carter admirer, claimed that one Clinton Cabinet member went as far as to call Jimmy Carter a “treasonous pri–k.”
Mr. Carter negotiated what became the 1994 Agreed Framework in which the US helped fund projects in North Korea with the promise that the government would give up nuclear weapons.
He also naively said he didn’t see anyone starving, and that grocery stores were well-stocked when he visited North Korea.
A later UN report would conclude that North Korea’s human rights abuses made it a de-facto hell on earth. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations . . . does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report said and it indicts the government there with “crimes against humanity.”
Mr. Carter arrogantly called his accomplishment of the Agreed Framework a “miracle.”
But the Agreed Framework was an utter failure.
In October, 2002, the North Koreans admitted to a uranium enrichment program and in 2006 North Korea tested its first nuclear device.
One of many to come.
In later years, instead of admitting fault to this historic failure, Mr. Carter later claimed that North Korea only built nuclear weapons because George W Bush labeled it as part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Michael Duffy, co-author of “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” told CNN’s “State of the Union” that when President Obama sent Carter to North Korea in 2010. He was so concerned about Carter going off that script that he made him sign a 12-point contract before he left, including one point which was to never talk about the press about the whole thing. Carter apparently signed the contract and then went and talked to the press anyway.
Humorously, Mr. Duffy’s book also goes on to say that there’s one thing that all of the living ex-presidents could agree on: their mutual dislike for Mr. Carter. The book states “Carter gave the club a great gift, something for all the others to complain about. When nothing else seemed to unite its members, the club often bonded over what an annoying cuss Carter could be.”
Was it Ego and arrogance that motivated Mr. Carter?
Some will say that at least Mr. Carter tried to be a peacemaker.
The proper response to that is that he should not have tried. He should have refrained from involvement in a situation in which he did not have all the facts or the authority to commit US positions and resources.
Why did Mr. Carter intervene?
It is at this point that we get into speculation and we have speculated that at least some degree of arrogance was a factor.
We have watched Mr. Carter’s post-presidential career for nearly forty years.
We have been dismayed at what we regard as sanctimony on race matters. The man who signaled support of George Wallace, ran a subtly racist campaign for governor in 1970, and belonged to a local church that did not admit Blacks, has felt free to criticize his fellow Americans’ racial views for decades – including imputing opposition to President Obama “overwhelmingly” to racism.
To be clear, we don’t deny that there is racism in America but we are skeptical that someone with Mr. Carter’s record is the best messenger on this issue.
Arrogance and ego likely convinced Mr. Carter that he himself should circumvent the sitting president and meddle in the North Korea crisis in 1994.
Undeniably, the meddling of Jimmy Carter in the 1990s was a major factor in North Korea’s eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons.
He worked out an unverifiable and unenforceable agreement that history shows that the North Koreans violated and went ahead to develop nuclear weapons.
Mr. Carter, in short, interfered with the policy of the US toward North Korea when action might have made a difference.
Whether Mr. Carter or his fans will admit it, his embarrassing role in this piece of history may turn out to be his main legacy when future historians look back on our era.
If there is war, it will be in some measure Mr. Carter’s war.