SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement is not expected to derail diplomatic momentum to reach a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it could complicate the negotiation process, analysts say.
Trump on Tuesday announced that the United States is ending its participation in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program, and would re-impose U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. The agreement was negotiated by the administration of Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, and involved five other world powers; Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.
Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton said the U.S. decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran will set a higher standard for North Korea nuclear talks by sending, “a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.”
?US-North Korea summit
The U.S. policy reversal on Iran should not seriously impede diplomatic progress underway with North Korea, said Victor Cha, a noted Korea scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“In terms of how the North Koreans would take it, I don’t think they’d take it one way or the other. I don’t think they’d see it as negative or positive because they think they’re different from anybody else anyway. They think they’re a very special case,” Cha said at a CSIS conference this week.
While the Iran deal limited that country’s efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, North Korea already possesses 20 to 60 nuclear warheads, according assessments by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and between 40 to 100 nuclear development facilities, according a report from the RAND Corporation security research organization.
But apprehension over whether future U.S. presidents would uphold a nuclear deal reached by Trump could reinforce the North Korean demand for early concessions.
John Delury, a North Korea analyst with Yonsei University in Seoul, said on Twitter, “I don’t think this is insurmountable but it adds yet another layer of difficulty.”
In some ways Pyongyang may be reassured that a deal reached with the Trump administration would likely be supported by the next administration to follow.
“If there is a new deal made with the Trump administration, there’s a higher confidence that that’s going to be kept because they can’t imagine possibly any more hard-line administrations afterward,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and currently a CSIS fellow.
Some financial analysts expect Iran’s exports of oil to Asia and Europe will almost certainly decline later this year, but that China and India, the two major Asian importers of Iranian crude, will oppose the sanctions. South Korea’s energy ministry issued a statement Wednesday saying it would seek an exemption to U.S. sanctions that might ban Iranian crude imports.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Wednesday that his country supported the Iran agreement, which he said “helps to strengthen international non-proliferation and the stability in the Middle East.” He added that Japan would “carefully analyze” the impact of the U.S. decision to withdraw.
Leaders from Japan, South Korea and China did not publicly address the U.S. reversal on the Iran nuclear deal when they met Wednesday for a trilateral security summit in Tokyo. Instead, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon-Jae-in and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated their support for continued diplomatic progress to end the North Korean nuclear threat.
“We should pursue all efforts towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of the North’s weapons of mass destruction and missiles, in accordance with the U.N. resolutions,” said Prime Minster Abe, who supports the Trump administration’s position that a nuclear deal with North Korea also limits its ballistic missile and biological weapons programs, and it must first implement the complete dismantlement of its weapons programs before sanctions are reduced.
North Korea has argued for a more incremental process that would provide immediate concessions for each denuclearization measure undertaken. It is not clear how the two sides can bridge the gap between their positions.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” that led international efforts to impose tough sanctions banning 90 percent of North Korean trade, is believed to be a key reason for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision this year to suspend further nuclear and missile tests, and agree to engage in denuclearization talks.
President Moon, who recently held a historic summit with Kim on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone border area, said the inter-Korean accord they reached, “built the foundation toward the settlement of a permanent peace,” and helped create the conditions for Trump and Kim to reach an agreement to end the North’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and security guarantees, when they hold their expected meeting in May or June.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday to work out arrangements and conditions for the Trump-Kim summit, including the exact date and location for the meeting. There is also speculation that three American prisoners being held in North Korea will be released during Pompeo’s visit as a goodwill gesture to facilitate further diplomatic progress.
Lee Yoon-jee contributed to this report.