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The Lessons North Korea Will Likely Take from the U.S. Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal


By Troy Stangarone

As President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran, in perhaps surreal fashion he also announced that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be landing in North Korea in about an hour to discuss the final details for the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on North Korean denuclearization. Even if unintentionally, President Trump’s comments had the result of linking the two agreements and how the issue of the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement may impact the prospects for reaching an agreement with North Korea on denuclearization.

Shortly afterwards, National Security Advisor John Bolton tried to draw these connections. He said that the withdrawal from the Iran deal was also designed to send a signal to North Korea that the United States wants a real deal on denuclearization, he added that “Another aspect of the withdrawal that was announced today (Tuesday), is to establish positions of strength for the United States.. (with) implications not simply for Iran but for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea; it sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept an inadequate deal.” Of course, reaching a real deal goes two ways and North Korea will likely take lessons from the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran deal.

North Korea studies the United States intensely and will likely want to avoid the challenges the Iran deal faced, as well as the shortcomings of its own prior experiences with the United States. While there are significant reasons that withdrawing from the Iran agreement could make reaching a deal with North Korea more difficult rather than provide the United States with leverage, there are also distinct lessons that North Korea may take from the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal beyond whether an agreement with the United States can be depended on.

When the Iran deal was completed there were bi-partisan concerns over whether the agreement sufficiently addressed Iran’s nuclear program and other issues. Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine was a co-author of the bi-partisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and pushed to extend sanctions on Iran. North Korea may find the process put forward in the Iran Nuclear Review Act as a stumbling block that it will want to avoid. The Act required the president to certify every 90 days that Iran was incompliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Avoiding a similar North Korea Nuclear Review Act and the potential for a continuous need to have the agreement certified will likely be a North Korean objective in light of the certification processing having served as a means for critics of the agreement to bring it to an end.

However, that does not necessarily mean that North Korea will not want Congressional involvement. Another failing of the Iran nuclear deal was that there was no real Congressional buy-in. As Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs at the Department of State wrote to then Congressman Mike Pompeo in 2015, the JCPOA is “not a or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document.” There is also the lesson from the Agreed Framework in the 1990s when North Korea became frustrated over delays in promised heavy fuel oil shipments and Congress’ reluctance to provide funding for the construction of light water reactors.  We should expect North Korea to want more Congressional buy-in to avoid difficulties with U.S. follow through and for any agreement to be more difficult to discard, perhaps as formal treaty to prevent a future president from withdrawing from the deal.

While the JCPOA was not designed to address Iran’s actions in the Middle East or its ballistic missile tests, the narrower scope of the agreement should also demonstrate the need for North Korea to reach a more comprehensive agreement with the United States so disputes on issues other than its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs do not undermine support for the core agreement. We are already seeing this in commentary to address North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons, but there will be some issues, such U.S. sanctions on human rights, which the talks may be unlikely to address.

Lastly, both the Agreed Framework and the JCPOA were reached with Democratic administrations and ultimately overturned by Republican administrations. With a general post-Cold War trend of Democrats preferring multilateral solutions and a Republican preference for bilateral agreements, any agreement reached with a Republican president is more likely to remain in place should there be a future Democratic president, additionally incentivizing North Korea to reach a deal with the current Trump administration.

As Americans go into talks with North Korea, they should be prepared for the North Koreans to seek stronger assurances for the longevity of any agreement than existed with the Iran agreement. If that is the case, North Korea could push U.S. negotiators in three areas: (1) to eliminate the prospect of the relatively frequent reviews that Iran faced; (2) that there be Congressional buy-in to sustain any agreement; and (3) that any agreement should be as comprehensive as possible. Without addressing these areas, it may be more difficult to reach a lasting deal.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.