Commentary / Japan

Can you really walk out, Mr. Trump?

by Kuni Miyake

It’s a simple matrix analysis. Every CIA analyst knows it. It’s about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s veracity and U.S. President Donald Trump’s discernment. There are only four possibilities that I can think of. Any one of them makes Tokyo dread how unsuccessful the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit could be.

Amid all the political constants and variables in the Korean Peninsula, especially in inter-Korean relations, the most vital issue for Tokyo is whether and how North Korea gives up its decades-old strategic nuclear missile development program. Theoretically, there are four scenarios.

1. A successful but most unlikely scenario — Kim is honest and Trump is insightful: If Kim is determined to dismantle his nuclear arsenal in a short period of time, and if Trump is convinced that Kim will do so, it would be a “job well done” and Trump could be eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is the best but most unlikely one of the four scenarios.

2. A missed opportunity scenario — Kim is sincere, but Trump miscalculates: Although Kim is ready to give up his nukes, Trump may not trust Kim for many convincing historical reasons. Even if Trump’s advisers are competent, he may not believe what they say and only trust his gut feeling. It is another unlikely but tragic scenario in which a rare historic opportunity could be lost.

3. A return-to-confrontation scenario — Kim cheats again and Trump anticipates it: If Kim is the real heir to his father’s and even his grandfather’s cunningness, he may not have much choice. If Trump takes good advice from his aides and penetrates Kim’s wiles, the meeting will fail and Trump may walk out and leave the summit. But could he really do it?

4. A worst-case scenario — Kim continues to lie and Trump believes him: Kim could be wise and offer his readiness to dismantle nukes, while requesting that the United States agree to a phased and reciprocal “denuclearization” of both North and South Korea. If Trump buys Kim’s narrative with his narcissistic appetite for the international spotlight and extols its virtues, it could be a disaster for Tokyo and Seoul.

Some Western pundits recently referred to Iran. They have found a possible linkage between Trump’s decision by May 12 on whether the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and his attitude vis-a-vis North Korea in the upcoming historic U.S.-North Korea summit.

Even Trump, when asked whether pulling out of the Iran deal sends the wrong message to North Korea, argued that he thought it would send “the right message.” It is most likely, however, that no message will reach Pyongyang, no matter what Trump says or does on May 12. The reason why is clear: Kim knows exactly what he has been doing and, with great help from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, has no reason to change his thus far successful tactics. If I were Kim, I would not pay too much attention to what happens to the JCPOA.

Still, it may be worthwhile to apply the matrix methodology to the U.S.-Iran relations, which could help Japan Times readers better predict the ramification of a failed or an unsuccessful U.S.-North Korea summit. The matrix analysis is about Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s honesty and Trump’s judgment:

1. A successful but unlikely scenario — Khamenei is honest and Trump is insightful: Iran will abide by the JCPOA and will not go nuclear in this case, while the Trump administration retains the agreement. This scenario seems fantastic but it may not happen easily.

2. A missed opportunity scenario — Iran is sincere, but Trump continues campaigning: In this scenario, Khamenei is honest but Trump is just interested in domestic elections. The U.S. president may even try to take advantage of the JCPOA issue for political purposes. Thus, a golden opportunity will be lost.

3. A return-to-crisis scenario — Iran cheats, and Trump is fully aware of it: Despite the JCPOA deal, Iran may harbor a hidden intention to develop its nuclear arsenal and Trump is convinced this is true. In this case, Trump will abrogate the Iran nuclear deal, and this may lead to a direct Iran-U.S. (or Israel) confrontation.

4. A worst-case scenario — Iran lies and Trump believes it: Trump maintains the JCPOA but virtually acquiesces to Iran’s secret nuclear weapons programs. This is a nightmare for Sunni Arab leaders and Israel, which may even lead to the latter’s (or a joint) limited attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Although both Iran and North Korea have ICBM-capable long-range missiles or rockets, Iran has no nuclear bombs or warheads while North Korea does. Despite its self-contradictory deficiencies, therefore, the JCPOA might have been effective in at least putting the Iranian nuclear program on hold for seven years.

A possible deal with North Korea, however, is much more complicated and difficult. Unlike the JCPOA with Iran, a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, no deal has been implemented by North Korea, which left the NPT regime twice, in 1993 and 2003. The world naturally requires a deal with Pyongyang that is much more strict and punitive than the JCPOA.

Which one of the above scenarios looks most likely? The following is my take on the challenges Trump will face in the coming several weeks. In the case of Iran, the incomplete JCPOA is better than nothing. No matter how much he hates it, Trump may have to live with the deal to prevent the current regretful situation from further deteriorating. Nonetheless, even if Iran abides by the JCPOA, things may all change in seven years.

If we need the insufficient JCPOA, how can we afford not having any agreement with Pyongyang? Mr. Trump, can you really walk out and leave? The whole world is watching you and you may deserve a worldwide reputation. If you don’t walk out and accept Kim’s phased and reciprocal (meaning no) denuclearization, it could be a real nightmare for Tokyo.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.