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View more articles by Mintaro Oba
Mintaro Oba is a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
“When I make promises, I keep them,” U.S. President Donald Trump said today in announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal.
But while the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement might have seemed to Trump’s supporters like a campaign promise kept, for most of the international community it was yet another indication that Trump is willing to violate agreements the United States is a party to – further undermining our global credibility – in order to please his political base.
Naturally, many commentators are drawing links between Iran and North Korea, suggesting that withdrawing from the Iran deal makes it more difficult – if not impossible – to achieve a denuclearization agreement with North Korea.
It’s a reasonable conclusion. But the truth is, the latest news likely won’t change North Korea’s basic willingness to negotiate an Iran-style agreement, which was already doubtful.
What it will do is reinforce existing North Korean behaviors and conclusions about the reliability of the United States.
North Korea never needed the Iran deal withdrawal to recognize how vulnerable American agreements can be
REINFORCING A PHASED APPROACH
North Korea has already had its Iran deal moment with the end of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It was, as Stephen Bosworth once described it, a “political orphan” soon after the ink was dry – starting first with the election of a Republican Congress in 1994 and the Supreme Court’s decision to effectively grant George W. Bush the presidency in 2000.
North Korea never needed the Iran deal withdrawal to recognize how vulnerable American agreements can be to U.S. domestic politics: it has already learned this lesson.
That’s likely a major reason why North Korea has consistently called for “phased and synchronous measures in a responsible manner” – a stance Kim Jong Un reaffirmed in his second meeting in Dalian with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korea wants to ensure the sustainability of any agreement by starting small and building up together, moving forward based on the United States fulfilling its end of the deal in each phase.
If anything, the Iran withdrawal will reinforce North Korea’s interest in a phased and synchronous approach to denuclearization. Kim may well have used his second meeting with Xi to confirm China’s understanding and sympathy for this position, something made easier by the fact that China (and Russia) is a party to the P5+1 agreement with Iran and is likely less than pleased that the United States has put regional stability at risk by withdrawing.
A POLITICAL VICTORY FOR THE NORTH
If the withdrawal from the Iran deal doesn’t actually change much substantively, it does hand North Korea a powerful tool in the war over the public narrative.
When North Korea takes the initiative, it tends to do so in a way that helps it come out ahead no matter the outcome. If the United States accepts the initiative, it is dealing on North Korea’s terms. If it doesn’t, it looks like it is the one acting in bad faith, potentially widening the gap between Washington and Beijing or Washington and Seoul.
That seems to be the approach Pyongyang is taking in the run-up to the Trump-Kim summit. If North Korea achieves an outcome that is in its interests, that works just fine for Pyongyang. If it doesn’t, it wants to be able to blame any setbacks on the United States and, if possible, drive a wedge between Washington and its regional partners.
President Trump announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way to North Korea during his statement on Iran, suggesting that the issues are linked in his mind
Recent KCNA statements suggest North Korea is laying the groundwork to be able to do just that. Soon after the inter-Korean summit, a KCNA commentary lashed out at the U.S.’s “anachronistic hostile policy.” Earlier this week, KCNA said that “the U.S. is deliberately provoking the DPRK at the time when the situation on the Korean peninsula is moving toward peace and reconciliation thanks to the historic north-south summit and the Panmunjom Declaration.”
The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal may not change much substantively with North Korea, but it will give DPRK a useful tool to suggest that the United States is the one to blame for any setbacks and a way to poke at a sore spot for the P5+1 nations and European partners.
POMPEO GOES NORTH
On the U.S. side, the Iran deal withdrawal also hardens an existing – and misguided – U.S. approach to North Korea. The Trump administration seems to believe that the withdrawal strengthens their hand. President Trump announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way to North Korea during his statement on Iran, suggesting that the issues are linked in his mind: that acting tough with Iran would produce a better agreement with North Korea.
National Security Advisor John Bolton echoed that sentiment in his own press briefing, stating that “another aspect of the withdrawal that was announced today is to establish positions of strength for the United States.”
“It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals,” Bolton added.
If Pompeo is hoping the Iran deal withdrawal will make Kim Jong Un more malleable, he may be in for a surprise
Secretary Pompeo, for his part, arrives in Pyongyang with the clear message that the administration rejects North Korea’s “phased and synchronous” approach.
“We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure,” Pompeo told traveling press. “That won’t lead to the outcome that I know Kim Jong Un wants and I know President Trump is demanding.”
If Pompeo is hoping the Iran deal withdrawal will make Kim Jong Un more malleable, he may be in for a surprise. It may not be a coincidence that Kim’s consultation with Xi came right before Pompeo’s arrival, and even if it is, Kim can come to the table knowing he has Xi’s explicit backing on a phased and synchronous approach. Far from dealing from a position of strength, Pompeo has less credibility to push for the sort of deal the administration claims it wants.
We won’t know for sure what will happen until the Trump-Kim summit is over. But what’s clear now is that the United States and North Korea remain far apart on their basic approaches to the situation. No amount of posturing over the Iran deal will change that.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of State