As the world reflects on the legacy of President Jimmy Carter, it’s important to remember the place where he may have left one of his greatest post-presidency marks — the Korean Peninsula.
Not only was Carter instrumental in preventing a U.S. attack on North Korea that could have been a second Korean War, he also was an advocate for replacing the 1953 ceasefire with a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. Now, Carter’s legacy can provide the Biden administration with crucial insight of how to move forward with North Korea, especially as Pyongyang has become a de facto nuclear power.
To Korea watchers, President Carter’s legacy on Korea is mixed. While in office, he made a tragic error in quashing the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, that claimed hundreds of lives. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest martial law following a military coup. On May 22, 1980, Carter’s national security team gave the green light to Lieutenant General Chun Doo-hwan to use force against the student protests in Gwangju, the birthplace of South Korea’s democracy. Much of the South Korean populace who longed for democracy felt betrayed by a U.S. president who championed human rights diplomacy.
But after leaving the White House, Carter played an instrumental role in preventing a new Korean War. In September 1994, as President Clinton weighed a first-strike on North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, President Carter, flanked by a CNN camera crew, flew to Pyongyang to meet Kim Il Sung and outline the terms of the Agreed Framework, which succeeded in freezing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for over a decade.
In his experience speaking with North Korean leaders, from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, Carter felt that he understood what North Korea wanted, as well as how the United States and North Korea could move forward on a path toward peace.
“All that the North Koreans have wanted is a peace agreement instead of a ceasefire and that we should help North Koreans access the outside world by ending our embargo,” he told me in November 2018, when we sat down together at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “They want basic peace with the United States and the ability to become part of a community of nations on an equal basis. I pray and hope that we work out an agreement and treat the North Koreans fairly.”
Carter pointed out the irony of how the United States had spent the last 70 years trying “to destroy the economy of North Korea” while working “to boost the economy of South Korea. And still, we condemn the North Koreans for not having a good economy.”
At that time in 2018, the two leaders of North Korea and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, met three times — twice at Panmunjom and once in Pyongyang — where they signed two declarations committing to ending war on the Korean Peninsula and ushering in a new era of peace. But peacemaking between the two Koreas alone was not enough; the success of the inter-Korean peace process also rested on the United States establishing peace with the North.
Unfortunately, summit meetings between the two in 2018-2019 ended in failure. Now we’re seeing the consequences of that. This year has already witnessed dangerously high tensions on the peninsula: North Korea recently displayed enough ICBMs to overwhelm the U.S.’s missile defense system and Washington and Seoul are ramping up massive joint military exercises in response. And South Korea under a conservative President Yoon Seok-yeol is flirting with the idea of arming itself with nuclear weapons.
The backdrop to this endless cycle of provocations is the U.S.-China great power conflict, which has put the Korean Peninsula on its front line.
While the Biden administration’s North Korea envoy has said he is willing to meet with his North Korean counterparts “anywhere, anytime,” Pyongyang has largely ignored those offers, and it’s not hard to understand why. Many U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum continue to resist calls for a peace, arguing that signing a peace agreement with North Korea would grant the Kim regime the right to become a nuclear-weapons state. Hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham has argued that a declaration of peace should only come “after [the North Koreans] give up their nukes.”
Even Joseph Yun, a moderate and former U.S. Envoy to North Korea, said, “[I]t would be a real mistake to have a peace treaty come first, then denuclearization, because that is clearly an open admission that you’re dealing with North Korea as an acknowledged nuclear weapons state.”
But a peace agreement would not necessarily recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. As pointed out in the Korea Peace Now! report “Path to Peace,” a peace agreement wouldn’t change the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which only acknowledges a nuclear weapons state as one that manufactured or tested a weapon prior to January 1, 1967. (North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 2006.)
Plus, there are more compelling reasons why a peace agreement would help defuse tensions and halt the arms race. Stanford University professor and nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who routinely inspected nuclear facilities in North Korea through the 1990s, said, “North Korea will not give up its weapons and weapons program until its security can be assured. Such assurance cannot be achieved simply by a US promise/agreement on paper. It will require a substantial period of co-existence and interdependence.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney put it best when he said, “[a] peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Absent such a peace treaty, every dispute presents afresh the question of the other side’s legitimacy.”
A peace agreement is also supported by members of Congress. On March 1, Representative Brad Sherman will re-introduce the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, which was first introduced in 2021 and calls for formally ending the Korean War with a peace agreement.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice, the Biden administration should take the lessons from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who made the most progress with North Korea to finally end the Korean War and usher in a new era of peace.
Christine Ahn is the Founder and Executive Director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families, and ensure women’s leadership in peace building. In 2015, she led 30 international women peacemakers from 15 countries across the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) from North Korea to South Korea. They walked with 10,000 Korean women on both sides of the DMZ and held women’s peace symposia in Pyongyang and Seoul where they discussed the impact of the unresolved war on women’s lives.Ahn is the co-coordinator of the global campaign, Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War, which Women Cross DMZ launched in 2019 with a coalition of women’s organizations, including the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Korean Women’s Movement for Peace, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She is the co-founder of the Korea Peace Network, Korea Policy Institute, Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island, Korean Americans for Fair Trade, and National Campaign to End the Korean War. Christine has organized peace and humanitarian aid delegations to North and South Korea, and has addressed the U.S. Congress, United Nations, Canadian Parliament, and the Republic of Korea National Commission on Human Rights and the ROK National Assembly.Christine’s writings have appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Hill, Fortune Magazine, TIME, South China Morning Post, Newsweek and The National Interest. She has appeared on Al Jazeera, Anderson Cooper 360, BBC, CNN, Democracy Now!, NBC Today Show, NPR, MSNBC, Voice of America, and the Samantha Bee Show Full Frontal.
Former US President Jimmy Carter crosses the military demarcation line in Panmunjom from North to South Korea June 18, 1994, amid questions about what he achieved during his peace mission to Pyongyang. Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.