North Korea Is Following the Saddam Hussein Playbook

The big question for the world is whether the United States will now follow its old Iraq playbook, too.

A man watches a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 16, 2018. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man watches a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 16, 2018. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad on what appeared to be a hopeless mission to persuade Saddam Hussein to grant U.N. weapons inspectors access to sensitive sites, and thus avert an impending war. (I was part of the press contingent.) The negotiations were tortuous, but Annan ultimately got Saddam to agree to everything that Washington and other capitals had demanded. In the aftermath, Annan was exhausted, euphoric, quietly proud of his own work. The U.N. Security Council accepted the deal, and the inspectors returned to work.

Then Saddam changed his mind, and barred them from the sensitive sites. The deal collapsed, and in December 1998, 10 months after Annan’s dash to Baghdad, the United States and the United Kingdom bombed Iraq.

I thought of that episode when U.S. President Donald Trump jubilantly announced that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ended a nuclear standoff, and the very real possibility of war, with an agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Trump is one full step behind Annan, since he and his team will be returning to Washington without any kind of agreement on access for weapons inspectors. He has not even tested the willingness of this absolute dictator to allow those inspectors to swarm across his territory. And this dictator, unlike Saddam, actually has weapons of mass destruction. Experience tells us that this shotgun romance will end in tears.

Annan endured some very rough treatment when he returned to the United States bearing what he thought was the precious chalice of peace. He had said, more or less tautologically, that he could “do business” with Saddam — a modest assertion compared to Trump’s exuberant claim that he had established a “terrific relationship” with Kim. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) accused the secretary-general of knuckling under to a monster. The Clinton administration subjected the deal to minute scrutiny before pronouncing itself satisfied. (My 1998 profile of Annan in the New York Times Magazine tells the tale.)

One wonders what kind of reception President Trump’s merely rhetorical agreement will get from his fellow Republicans. Will they extend to North Korea the logic of Iran? Republicans closed ranks behind Trump when he abrogated the nuclear deal with Iran despite the extremely elaborate requirements for compliance with weapons inspectors embedded in the agreement. Will Republicans insist that the Trump administration demand even stricter compliance than the administration of Barack Obama negotiated with Tehran? Or will they give Trump a pass, because in the end they care more about chalking up a diplomatic win than about disarming North Korea?

The Annan mission shows the intrinsic difficulty of getting absolute rulers to agree to something that they regard as a profound infringement on sovereignty. The document that Saddam signed committed him to allow the inspectors unlimited access to so-called presidential sites, which turned out to cover thousands of square miles, so long as they were accompanied by diplomats. But by August, Saddam had lost patience and demanded the inspectors give him a clean bill of health, and then that the Security Council roll back the sanctions that had been imposed on him. He stopped cooperating, leading to yet another crisis, and then to Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign in December.

The Iraq analogy would seem to apply a fortiori to Kim’s North Korea. Saddam had good reason to comply, above all because he had already eliminated his weapons of mass destruction, but also because Iraq could return to its role as a major regional power once the sanctions were lifted. North Korea, by contrast, not only has a vast nuclear program, but it has no assets of any value save for those weapons, even if Donald Trump is deeply impressed with the latent value of the country’s beachfront property. Kim is even more accustomed than was Saddam to exercising absolute control over his own territory. Will he be more open than Saddam was to surrendering such control?

Donald Trump, of course, thinks that he will be, because he assumes that Kim cares about what all sensible people care about most–money. He’ll trade in his weapons for a battery of five-star Trump hotels with sea views. It may be so. The Iranian regime did, indeed, make such a calculation, but the legitimacy of that regime depends far more on public support, and thus on economic progress, than does the Kim dynasty, which has used mass starvation as a political weapon. What’s more, if the concessions the Iranians made in order to gain access to world markets were insufficient for Trump, one can hardly conceive what it would take for Kim to achieve full compliance.

Nevertheless, let us imagine, for a moment, that American and North Korean negotiators do somehow reach a mutual understanding over denuclearization, which is to say the progressive dismantlement of the North’s vast nuclear apparatus. (See this explanation of the magnitude of such an undertaking.) Let us imagine, as well, that the United Nations somehow manages to assemble the thousands of qualified weapons inspectors required to oversee and verify the agreement. What happens if Kim had been assuming all the while that he could hide a half-dozen nukes or a secret underground enrichment facility, and balks when inspectors seek access to them? What if, like Saddam, he demands sanctions relief long before he has demonstrated true compliance?

Iran has provided us with no such precedent, since the Iranians have honored the commitments they made in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The analogy lies with Iraq, circa 1998. The United States might not bomb North Korea, as it did Iraq, because the consequences of doing so would be too dire even for (one hopes) this president. Indeed, we should be grateful that Trump has stepped into this breach, because the chance that the effort will somehow succeed is greater than the chance that failure will lead to war. Nevertheless, a breakdown would lead to redoubled hostilities, leading we know not where.

But one can envision an entirely different scenario. Kim, who certainly seems to be no one’s fool, may understand that Trump is so invested in his own fantasy of saving the world that he will overlook almost any violation of whatever agreement the two sides reach. The North Korean leader may thus calculate that he can cooperate just enough to extend the horizon of denuclearization close to infinity. In the interest of preserving its diplomatic triumph, the Trump administration may agree to overlook what the Clinton administration would not overlook two decades ago. That would be the worst of all possible outcomes, since Kim would achieve the legitimacy he seeks without surrendering his capacity for global blackmail.

Who, in that case, would blow the whistle? The Japanese, no doubt; but Trump can always shrug off the pleas of an ally. The Democrats, of course; but ditto. Would the Republicans? Do they, unlike their president, care about preserving global order more than they care about the next election? Perhaps we’ll have a chance to find out.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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