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Lessons Learned: Kim Jong-un and the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

By Robert R. King

In the last few days the United States and Iran faced off in their most recent and one of their most dangerous confrontations.  North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un was no doubt watching more intently and more anxiously than most other world leaders.  It is hard to believe that Chairman Kim has not been thinking in very personal terms about the situation involving Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

A clear indication of Pyongyang’s intense interest in the U.S.-Iran confrontation is the fact that North Korea’s tightly-controlled news media has been unusually quiet on the topic.  The media avoided comment or even giving coverage to the actions taking place between Washington and Tehran.  North Korean media cited the public Chinese and Russian criticism of the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, and reported that Soleimani had been killed.  The North Korean story did not mention Soleimani’s high position in the Iranian military hierarchy nor give an indication of his importance in Iran.  Kim Jong-un’s visit to a fertilizer factory at the time of these events was given considerably more media coverage in Pyongyang.

North Korea, Iran and the “Axis of Evil”

North Korea has been consistently placed in the same category as Iran by U.S. presidents over the last two decades.  Additions and deletions have been made to U.S. listing of rogue regimes, but the only two countries consistently on the list are Iran and North Korea.  Nearly 20 years ago shortly after the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City,  President George W. Bush linked North Korea and Iran when he included both countries plus Iraq, which was invaded shortly afterward, in the memorable phrase “Axis of Evil.”  During the Bush Administration, John Bolton added Cuba, Venezuela, and Libya to the Axis of Evil.  The revolutionary overthrow and execution of Muammar Qadaffi a few years later resulted in the removal of Libya from the list.

In his first State of the Union Address in January 2018, Donald Trump singled out four “communist and socialist dictatorships” for his own list of rogue regimes threatening world peace.  Trump’s list was Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.  The fact that Iran and North Korea are consistently on the naughty list must make Kim Jong-un very attentive to how the U.S. president is dealing with Iran.

On January 8, just a few days after the death of Iranian General Soleimani in the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad and the day after Iranian missiles were fired in retaliation against U.S. military bases in Iraq, President Trump delivered a closely watched White House speech on Iran.  Officials in Pyongyang were probably paying very careful attention to Trump’s speech.

Pyongyang is also very likely watching closely the popular upheaval and protests in Iran that followed just a few days later when the Iranian government belatedly admitted that one of its missiles had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian commercial aircraft killing 176 mostly ethnic Iranian passengers.  In light of North Korean and Iranian cooperation on nuclear and missile issues, as well as both countries’ hostility to the United States, Pyongyang is probably paying very close attention to what has transpired between Tehran and Washington.

North Korea’s Ties with Iran on Nuclear and Missile Development 

The two countries have cooperated in the development of missile delivery systems.  North Korea provided scud missiles to Iran in the 1990s and probably earlier during the Iran-Iraq war, but Iran has continued to develop its own missile capabilities.  Iranian missiles appear to have more accurate targeting capability than we have seen thus far from North Korean launches in the last few months.

Public information about nuclear cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang is limited, but in the past North Korea shared nuclear technology with countries hostile to the United States in the Middle East.  A North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria was destroyed by the Israeli military before it was completed.  The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the destroyed facility had the capability to produce nuclear weapons-grade materials.  No similar nuclear smoking gun has been identified in the case of Iran, but there are convincing indications that North Korea and Iran have aided each other in their missile and nuclear quest.

President Trump’s efforts to work with Kim Jong-un to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula have largely foundered over North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.  A path forward on the nuclear issue was not identified in working-level discussions prior to the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, and that was the reason the summit failed.  The first sentence in President Trump’s January 8 speech on the current crisis with Iran—even before the President said “Good morning” to the assembled journalists and dignitaries—was this statement: “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” That first statement was only then followed by a “Good morning” and the information that no Americans were harmed in the Iranian missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq just a few hours earlier.

The unequivocal reaffirmation of opposition to nuclear weapons for Iran was likely interpreted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong-un as a very negative signal with regard to the possibility of some accommodation with the United States.  Kim has been adamant in insisting that he intends to maintain and enhance North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability.

Trump’s Whims, Not National Consensus is the Basis of U.S. Policy

A red flag warning to Kim Jong-un from President Trump’s action against Iran is that U.S. policy is not based on a broad national consensus.  Policy changes take place at the whim of the person who happens to be in the White House.  Trump made that point clear in his January 8th White House speech on the Iranian missile attacks on U.S. military facilities in Iraq.  He harshly criticized by name his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

Trump also blamed the multinational agreement to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, known as the JPCOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).  This agreement was negotiated with the participation and support not only of the United Sates but also the other members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom) as well as Germany and the European Union.  The bottom line message from the President’s speech and U.S. military actions is that policy changes with a change in leadership.  Policy changes at the whim of the person who happens to be in the Oval Office at the time.

In light of U.S. actions involving Iran over the last few weeks, the aggressive U.S. action against one of North Korea’s few friends, as well as the idiosyncratic personal role played by President Trump are likely to make the North even more cautious about making any serious long-term changes in its relationship with the United States.  Suspicion and caution about United States intentions raised by the Iranian actions will likely make further progress on U.S.-North Korean relations even more difficult and unlikely.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from Peyman Abkhezr’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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