SAN FRANCISCO — Former President Jimmy Carter — who once brokered a nuclear agreement with Kim Jong Un’s grandfather in the 1990s — is offering to travel to North Korea to try and break President Donald Trump’s deadlock with the North Korean dictator.
The offer was described to POLITICO by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who met with the former president in Atlanta on Thursday.
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In 1994, Carter became the first U.S. president ever to visit North Korea when he met with Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong Un. Together, the two developed a bilateral, “step-by-step plan to get to the point of peace and work toward denuclearization,’’ Khanna said.
Carter, now 94, no longer travels but told Khanna that he would go to North Korea if the Trump administration wanted his assistance. Khanna noted that Carter is “perhaps the only person in the nation” who had direct contact and negotiations with Kim’s grandfather, a revered figure in North Korea. And with that “weight of history,” he added, Carter may be in a unique position to assist Trump in his nuclear talks with the current North Korean dictator after the two leaders left a recent summit in Vietnam with no agreement on how to move forward.
Carter could not be immediately reached for comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The prospect that Trump would align himself with his Democratic predecessor seems remote. The normally reserved ex-president has challenged Trump, saying that he would “change all of the policies” Trump has instituted if he could, and describing his presidency as a “disaster.” And while Trump has not made Carter a target while in office, he has previously chided Carter for ostensibly being a pushover.
But Khanna — a member of the House Armed Services Committee who sits on the intelligence and emerging threats subpanel — said his meeting with Carter presented a possible role he could play in helping to build on past negotiations. With Carter’s blessing, Khanna said, he will now work to revive the 12-point strategy for denuclearization that Carter drew up with Kim Il Sung, “amend it’’ and aim to release a new joint framework that he hopes could assist the administration.
Robert Malley, a conflict specialist and foreign policy point man who worked with Carter on the original agreement and later served in the Obama administration, has also agreed to be involved in the effort, Khanna said.
“The administration faces real dilemmas about how to move forward,” Malley said via email, while declining to comment on his specific role in any negotiations. “That makes it a good time to take a step back and talk to those who have experience on this issue and on dealing with North Korea. President Carter fits that description. He’s dealt with North Korea’s leadership at the highest level more than almost any American. So, yes, it would make a lot of sense for the Trump administration to talk to him.”
Another potential hurdle is Trump national security adviser John Bolton, who had a key role in squelching the earlier denuclearization agreement.
After Carter negotiated with Kim’s grandfather, who died shortly after their meeting, the Democrat continued in his efforts to get the 12-point agreement completed. He met with President Bill Clinton, whose administration attempted to negotiate with Kim Jong Il, the current dictator’s father. But Clinton was unable to nail down an agreement to adopt the 12-point strategy, and Bolton eventually helped quash further efforts during the George W. Bush administration.
Khanna acknowledged it may be a long shot for the Trump administration to welcome Carter’s involvement in the peace process. But, he noted, “the stakes are enormous,’’ especially with reports that the North Koreans are beginning to rebuild key missile test facilities surfacing just days after the end of the second Trump-Kim summit.
“The fact that Carter is willing to engage Kim Jong Un is a good thing,’’ he said, adding that the former president’s involvement could be a “win-win” for Trump. The president could get a major foreign policy win, while gaining rare support from Capitol Hill Democrats in the process, he insisted.