What I've learned from North Korea's leaders

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Second Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang October 8, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Second Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang October 8, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS

We face the strong possibility of another Korean war, with potentially devastating consequences to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, our outlying territories in the Pacific and perhaps the mainland of the United States. It is imperative that Pyongyang and Washington find some way to ease the escalating tension and reach a lasting, peaceful agreement.

Over more than 20 years, I have spent hours in discussions with top North Korean officials and citizens during visits to Pyongyang and to the countryside. I found Kim Il Sung, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and other leaders to be rational and dedicated to the preservation of their regime.

What the officials have demanded is direct talks with the United States, leading to a permanent peace treaty. They want an end to sanctions, a guarantee that there will be no military attack, and eventual normal relations between their country and the international community.

I have visited with people who were starving. Millions suffer from famine and food insecurity. They are probably the most isolated people on Earth and believe their greatest threat is from a preemptory military attack by the United States.

The top priority of North Korea’s leaders is to preserve their regime and keep it free from outside control. They are largely immune from pressure from outside. During the time of Kim Jong Un, this immunity also has applied to China, whose leaders want to avoid a regime collapse in North Korea or having to contemplate a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea.

Until now, severe economic sanctions have not prevented North Korea from developing a formidable military force, including long-range nuclear missiles, utilizing a surprising level of technological capability. There is no chance that it will agree to a total denuclearization, as it has seen what happened in a denuclearized Libya and assessed the doubtful status of U.S. adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement.

There have been a number of suggestions for resolving this crisis, including military strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, more severe economic punishment, the forging of a protective nuclear deal between China and North Korea similar to those between the United States and South Korea and Japan, a real enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and ending annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

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All these options are intended to dissuade the leadership of a nation with long-range nuclear weapons from taking steps to defend itself. None of them offer an immediate way to end the crisis, because the Pyongyang government believes its survival is at stake. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement last week that “we have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation” is a good first step to defusing tensions.

The United States should offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for talks or to support a conference including North and South Korea, the United States and China.

• Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, is founder of the nonprofit Carter Center

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