Maxwell Downman compares two decisive non-proliferation tests facing the US President, weighing up the dangers of a fragmented and reactive policy
In North Korea and Iran, the US faces two critical non-proliferation challenges at opposing ends of Asia. By May 12, the Trump Administration will decide whether to reapply sanctions on Iran, after decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal in October 2017. In North Korea, President Trump has, much to global surprise, agreed to a bilateral summit with Kim Jong-un. The summit will be the first time the US and North Korean heads of state have met and provides a rare opportunity to de-escalate the international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
Many observers have noted that the outcomes of these two crises cannot be viewed in isolation. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-un will strike a deal with Trump if he unilaterally scuppers the Iran Deal. Yet these crises have even more similarities than meets the eye.
On the Korean Peninsula the mood has changed dramatically in the last few months, from one of palpable fear of an outbreak of conflict to guarded optimism about progress on the peninsula’s decade-longstandoff. Momentum is building as preparations begin in earnest for an inter-Korean summit at the time of writing. The talks between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be the first time Korean leaders have met since 2007, and there are hints they will be discussing a peace process towards a treaty. The latest sign of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to cooperate, the meeting will serve as a prelude for the Trump-Kim summit in late May or early June.
Moreover, Trump recently confirmed that Mike Pompeo, the head of the CIA and nominee for Secretary of State, met Kim in Pyongyang in April. This is the highest-level meeting between the US and North Korea since 2000. ‘Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong-un in North Korea last week,’ Trump tweeted on 18 April. ‘Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!’
So what could an agreement with North Korea look like, and is denuclearisation possible? Both Trump and Kim Jong-un have stated they are committed to denuclearisation, but this statement masks different understandings. For the US, denuclearisation means the ‘complete, irreversible and verifiable’ dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme. For Pyongyang, it is more akin to a process that creates the security conditions in which North Korea doesnot need nuclear weapons. Contingent to this is the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea – anathema to the US and its regional allies.
This does not appear to have changed. Pyongyang continues to talk about a ‘phased, synchronised’ approach in exchange for benefits, while Washington, Tokyo and Seoul want an end to the nuclear programme by 2020 – conveniently timed ahead of the next US Presidential elections.
Thus, any agreement will likely be more limited in scope. Commentators are already questioning whether Pyongyang is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons following North Korea’s announcement that it will halt nuclear and missile tests and close a nuclear test site as a gesture of goodwill before the summit. Yet the real challenge will be to create a framework out of such gestures so both sides can claim a diplomatic success and follow-on negotiations are possible.
There is little question that negotiating with Pyongyang and negotiating with Tehran are different; North Korea has a bomb, Iran does not. But any agreement to successfully curb Pyongyang’s nuclear programme would bear marked similarities to the Iran Deal. It would need regional support and global buy-in to sanctions relief to ensure North Korea received benefits from engaging the international community. It would require a verification regime conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it would have to accept North Korea’s right to a civil nuclear weapons programme. Importantly, it would be foolish to expect that an agreement could cover every aspect of relations with North Korea, from human rights and illicit trade to its ballistic missile programme and the issue of Korean reunification.
This makes Trump’s approach to the Iran Deal all the more worrying. The US President is required to recertify that Iran is in compliance or that the Deal is in the US national interest. Despite Iran’s compliance, Trump refused to recertify the Iran Deal in October and warned that he would not continue to waive sanctions past May 12.
Trump is concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile programme, wider Iranian action in the region – including in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria – and its capability to develop nuclear weapons after the 10-year deal, the so-called ‘sunset clauses’. These complaints bear closer scrutiny.
When the Iran Deal was initially negotiated, it purposefully excluded Iran’s ballistic missile programme and wider behaviour in the region. It was commonly understood that such an all-encompassing deal would be impossible to negotiate. This is even truer today, given the Middle East’s complex geopolitics.
Similarly, it is problematic that the United States fixates on potential North Korean and Iranian ICBMs that can hit the US homeland, rather than on the concerns of European and Asian allies. European capitals will not stand idly by if the United States abandons the Iran Deal because of a non-existent threat to the US homeland, while Iranian missiles could theoretically target Eastern Europe today. In Asia, it is still unclear whether North Korea could deliver a nuclear payload to the US mainland, while Seoul and Washington must live continuously with the North Korean threat. The US must be mindful to not make decisions that isolate its regional partners.
On the sunset clauses, Ernest Moniz, a key architect of the Iran Deal, has explained that ‘there is no sunset’. Iran is locked into permanent requirements and restrictions, including IAEA inspections of any nuclear sites on 24 hours’ notice, and a number of other measures until 2041. Trump’s distaste for the verification mechanisms of the Iran Deal is problematic for solving the North Korean crisis. It is easy to detect if Pyongyang has violated a freeze on nuclear testing or ballistic missile testing. However, only a stringent verification regime akin to the Iran Deal can seriously monitor a freeze on fissile material production.
All this reflects a wider problem within the current US Administration: a disjointed and reactive non-proliferation policy. Trump’s decisions this May will obviously have wide-reaching repercussions. If he decides to scupper the Iran Deal this will severely damage the credibility of the United States as a partner and have dangerous knock-on effects for negotiating with North Korea.
Moreover, it will call into question the underlying assumptions of arms control and non-proliferation: that it is worth engaging on nuclear issues despite political differences, and that mutually agreed verification measures work. In addition, if Trump’s decisions are taken without support from regional allies they will be unworkable in the long term.
One hopes that the guarded optimism on the Korean Peninsula is not misplaced, and that the Trump Administration can see how pulling out of the Iran Deal is an own goal. If not, Trump could set the United States down a dangerous road to nuclear confrontation with Iran and North Korea, and it could happen sooner rather than later.