Shadow Government

Trump Should Do His Nuke Deal Homework

The Iran nuclear accord contains lessons for talks with North Korea.

A South Korean soldier walks past a television displaying images of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
A South Korean soldier walks past a television displaying images of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

There are many reasons to doubt that the expected summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will result in a breakthrough, given Pyongyang’s history of duplicitous negotiations and decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But Trump is right to pursue the summit, both to reduce the risk of military conflict and to see if there is a realistic chance that diplomacy can resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Trump is confident in his negotiating skills and likely thinks that he is better positioned to close a deal than decades of prior negotiators were. To maximize the chances for breakthrough, however, Trump and his incoming national security advisor, John Bolton, should study a set of negotiations that they both frequently deride: those between President Barack Obama’s administration and Iran. Despite Trump’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it offers lessons for the president as he prepares to talk with Pyongyang.

First, comparing the JCPOA and past U.S. negotiations with North Korea, such as the 1994 Agreed Framework, suggests that Trump should assess the possibility for a big deal that results in a comprehensive agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, rather than a small deal in which North Korea would make limited nuclear concessions in exchange for limited benefits from the international community.

The Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to freeze the development of two nuclear reactors in exchange for fuel oil, represented small diplomacy. The framework ultimately failed because North Korea continued a covert nuclear program, prompting President George W. Bush’s administration to withdraw. In negotiating the JCPOA, the Obama administration drew two lessons from this failure: First, the United States and allies should seek a deal that would comprehensively address Iranian nuclear issues, rather than agree to an incremental approach that would leave Iran with ample opportunities to cheat. Second, the United States should front-load a deal so that Iran would have to move quickly to meet extensive nuclear commitments, such as removing centrifuges and dismantling its Arak reactor. This structure was intended to prevent Iran from getting what it wanted — sanctions relief — in exchange for only partly meeting its commitments.

To date, the Iran deal has worked as intended: Iran implemented extensive nuclear commitments in the first six months after the accord was announced, and JCPOA critics generally concede that the provisions in force during the deal’s initial years severely constrain Iranian nuclear activity. Trump should seek a similarly comprehensive agreement that requires North Korea to implement a wide-ranging set of nuclear steps before the United States and its allies implement significant economic concessions.

Indeed, if the JCPOA collapses in the coming months, it will be because critics of the deal, including Trump, see it as too small. The JCPOA allows Iran to begin expanding its nuclear enrichment program in the early 2020s and does not address Iran’s support for terrorism and other malign activities across the Middle East. From an Iranian perspective, the JCPOA has failed to deliver promised economic relief, due in part to the fact that the United States kept in place tough sanctions on Iran’s support for terrorism, ballistic missiles program, and regional malfeasances. This has enabled critics in both Washington and Tehran to argue that the deal fails to adequately protect their national interests.

With North Korea, Trump should use the summit to assess the possibility of a genuinely big deal that would comprehensively address numerous North Korean threats to the United States and its allies. But to begin a serious discussion about potential parameters of a big deal, Trump needs to enter the summit with an understanding of the issues on which he is prepared to negotiate.

In public and private statements, the Trump administration has been clear that it will insist on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the Trump White House has taken few public positions on other issues, such as formally ending the Korean War, the U.S. force posture on the peninsula, or security guarantees that Beijing (and Washington) might provide Pyongyang, suggesting that Trump may be open to negotiations on wide-ranging issues other than the core U.S. objective of denuclearization. Kim will undoubtedly come to the table expecting to discuss these issues, and Trump needs to know before he and Kim meet which of them the United States is prepared to negotiate over and which it is not.

On sanctions, the lesson from the JCPOA is that Trump will need a clear vision of what sanctions the United States would be prepared to lift as part of a nuclear deal with North Korea and which the United States would insist on keeping in place even after a deal is in effect. North Korea will insist on lifting recent rounds of U.N. sanctions as a central part of any deal. But the Trump administration needs to decide if it would also be willing to ease U.S. bilateral sanctions as part of a deal, such the U.S. trade embargo, or whether the United States would keep such sanctions in force to ensure ongoing pressure on North Korea for its human rights abuses and other non-nuclear issues. More generally, Trump and U.S. allies will need to decide what, if any, sanctions are non-nuclear in nature and so should be excluded from any deal.

Trump and Bolton should also understand that negotiations with Pyongyang are not just about the United States and North Korea — they are about China, much as Iran’s negotiations were in part about Iran’s role in the Middle East. While the JCPOA did not include sanctions relief on Iran’s support for Hezbollah or against the country’s destabilizing regional activities, Iran wanted the deal in part to end its isolation and legitimize its regional role. Similarly, Pyongyang sees negotiations with the United States as a way to enhance its regional statute and recalibrate its relationship with Beijing, which has grown increasingly tense and is likely to remain so, despite Kim’s recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korea’s interest in being less dependent on China may make Kim more eager to strike a deal. Conversely, Beijing is concerned about maintaining a seat at the negotiating table and could try to spoil negotiations if it thinks a U.S.-North Korea deal includes terms contrary to China’s interests.

Finally, the JCPOA negotiations show the importance of setting a specific timetable for concluding negotiations and of keeping pressure up while negotiations are under way. When the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — plus Germany, announced an interim nuclear deal with Iran in late 2013, negotiators gave themselves six months to conclude a comprehensive agreement. They ultimately extended that deadline in several stages, but the existence of the self-imposed timetable ensured that all parties stayed focused on reaching an agreement, rather than playing for time. A fixed schedule for any negotiations with Pyongyang following the Trump-Kim summit will be even more important given North Korea’s long history of using negotiations as a stalling tactic to buy time to make nuclear progress. Meanwhile, keeping sanctions in place increases U.S. leverage with each passing day, given that sanctions only really began to bite last year and that their economic impact on Pyongyang is still building.

There are many reasons to doubt that the United States will reach a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. Pyongyang has a long history of duplicity in negotiations and has elevated nuclear weapons as a core symbol of the Kim family’s power and legitimacy. Weeks after photos from Trump’s summit with Kim dominate global headlines, talks may well collapse as it becomes clear North Korea is not prepared to end its nuclear program. But by studying the lessons of the JCPOA, Trump can increase the odds of using the summit to determine if there is even a glimmer of hope for a peaceful resolution to today’s greatest nuclear threat.


Peter E. Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @petereharrell

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