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Can former US President Jimmy Carter bring peace to the Korean Peninsula?

Former US President Jimmy Carter has intervened successfully in North Korea in the past and could prove acceptable to the isolated nation’s dictator Kim Jong Un as a peace negotiator. Julian Ryall reports.

Jimmy Carter, the 93-year-old former US president, has reportedly indicated that he is willing to travel to Pyongyang to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in an effort to head off a military clash in Northeast Asia.  

Carter's plan was revealed by Park Han-shik, a Korean professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. Park met Carter at the former president's home in Plains, Georgia, on September 28, he told South Korea's JoongAng Daily newspaper, with Carter saying he "wants to play a constructive role for peace on the Korean Peninsula, as he did in 1994."

Park added that Carter wants to meet Kim Jong Un in person "to discuss a peace treaty between the United States and the North and the complete denuclearization of North Korea."

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'Permanent peace'

The ultimate aim, he said, would be "establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."

Analysts believe that North Korea would welcome the possibility of talks as it would be both a propaganda coup and serve to legitimize the regime. China and Russia would also be supportive as both governments have been calling for meaningful talks to put an end to the worsening exchanges of rhetoric and threats.

And while there are many in Washington who are willing to explore the possibility of talks, it is less clear whether President Donald Trump will personally be in favor of a former US leader taking the spotlight.

In September, an official of the US State Department reportedly visited Carter at his home to pass on a message from Trump that he refrain from speaking publicly about the deepening crisis in Northeast Asia on the grounds that he was undermining the president.

Read more: Fighting Kim Jong Un's regime with balloons

Still, Carter wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week about the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Noting that this is the "most serious existing threat to world peace," the former US leader said: "it is imperative that Pyongyang and Washington find some way to ease the escalating tension and reach a lasting, peaceful agreement."

But Trump's position on the North has been more confrontational. In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September, Trump said the US will "totally destroy" North Korea if it pushes ahead with its development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In a tweet on Saturday, the president stated, "Only one thing will work" and an aide told the media that Trump is telegraphing that "military options are on the table."

Read more: Why Trump won't 'totally destroy' North Korea

"North Korea wants this because their goal is to get the US to back down and if Washington has to move away from its stated position of a denuclearized North Korea, then they will see that as a victory," said James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

Pyongyang legitimacy

"A meeting between Carter and Kim would not be the same as official government-to-government talks, but the North will not mind as it gives them more of the legitimacy that they want," Brown told DW.

Carter's track record will make him even more palatable to the North, as he stepped in previously, in 1994, when then-US President Bill Clinton was drawing up plans for an attack on North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Carter travelled to Pyongyang in June of that year and reached an agreement with Kim Il Sung for the North to freeze its nuclear program. Four months later, the US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, under which the North would eventually dismantle its nuclear program.

In August 2010, he again intervened to help win the release of Aijalon Gomes, an American national who had been given an eight-year prison sentence for entering the North illegally.

"Carter going to Pyongyang has to be better than the current situation," said Brown. "The US says that these agreements were used in the past by the North to buy time to develop its missiles and that they need to take a harder line now. But that is not working as the North is just responding with new missile launches and nuclear tests.

"To my mind, neither option is very good, but dialogue has to be better than the alternative," he added.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korea's ruling family, believes the likelihood of Carter actually going to Pyongyang is slim.

Trump dislikes Democrats

"Carter is a Democrat and Trump dislikes him nearly as much as he disliked Barack Obama," he said. "He will not allow Carter to go there to broker peace because it would be a serious personal embarrassment to him.

"His presidency would effectively have been undermined," Shigemura said, pointing out Trump's reaction when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that talks were possible with North Korea.

Professor Park, who first claimed that Carter is considering travelling to Pyongyang, has visited North Korea on at least 50 occasions and Shigemura suggested that the idea may have actually originated in Pyongyang.

If so, it might be an attempt to demean Trump at the same time as opening new lines of communication with a respected elder statesman. And if the North is genuinely willing to talk, that might signal that international sanctions are slowly beginning to impact the regime or that Kim realizes that, sooner or later, they will cripple his nation and potentially cause his citizens to question his leadership.

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