CANBERRA – The standard measure for good eyesight is 20/20. In 2020, several issues on the regional and global agendas that have been foggy for the last five years or so should become clearer. Two of the longest-standing regional concerns are Iran and North Korea. In the last five years they have influenced each other and this is likely to continue in 2020.
Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were successfully concluded in 2015 and the United Nations Security Council endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action unanimously, enthusiastically and with considerable relief.
The JCPOA was a good deal in that it satisfied all sides’ minimum demands without ceding maximum demands of any side. Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon option was effectively checked by dismantling its infrastructure, eliminating almost all of its accumulated enriched uranium and subjecting Iran to a tough inspections regime in return for phased sanctions relief.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear and missile testing program and, despite reciprocal bellicose rhetoric in 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was rewarded with a series of summits with U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018-2019. Iran’s leadership have watched all this with amazement and their hardliners will feel vindicated in the belief that Washington respects strength and punishes moves toward accommodation as signs of weakness.
With a visceral dislike of any Obama achievement, Trump recklessly pulled out of the JCPOA in 2017 and reimposed unilateral and illegal sanctions. Tensions have continued to increase in Iran-U.S. relations ever since and Iran’s leaders have cautioned Pyongyang not to fall into the same trap. The murder by drone of Gen. Qassem Soleimani will have made North Korea’s leadership very jittery and eliminated whatever little incentive existed to give up the bomb.
Confronting a Trump regime that Pyongyang believes is intent on isolating and strangulating North Korea through sanctions and pressure, nuclear weapons are treasured as the only guarantee of regime survival. At the same time, Soleimani’s death confirms Trump’s unpredictability and the lack of legal constraints on his actions. If he can, he will authorize taking out top North Korean military commanders and political leaders.
It’s hard to imagine that most of Trump’s policies on North Korea this year will not be colored significantly by electoral considerations. Shifts in opinion polls, including the impact of impeachment politics, could make Trump either desperate to conclude any deal, even a bad one, in order to declare victory and go home; or else look for an excuse to launch punishing military strikes to take out a senior North Korean or destroy a military facility to demonstrate toughness. The latter course might come under active consideration should Pyongyang follow through on its threat to resume nuclear and ICBM tests.
A credible survey last year showed that one-third of Americans would approve of a preventive nuclear strike on North Korea, even if it killed 1 million civilians. As always, details will matter little to he who acts on gut instincts, and this makes U.S. foreign policy even more wildly unpredictable and volatile.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has his own political compulsions to leave a legacy. He has been the main driver of the Korean peace train, held numerous summits with Kim and invested time, effort, prestige and credibility in a successful outcome that remains elusive, if not illusory. South Korea’s presidential election will be held in mid-2022. Effectively this leaves only a narrow window of opportunity for meaningful progress on Pyongyang’s denuclearization — if that is still a relevant policy goal — and inter-Korean peace. There is sufficient domestic opposition within South Korea to brazen appeasement of Pyongyang. On the other hand, South Koreans are on the front line of any war and only too aware of the grave risks of the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly three years after acquiring ICBM capability, Kim still refrains from military adventurism. Perhaps nuclear weapons give him the necessary confidence to abandon belligerent rhetoric and behavior. The longer he keeps them, the more credible the claim will become that his primary interest is in a nuclear shield, not a nuclear sword.
The region seems progressively resigned to a nuclear North Korea as the new normal. Pyongyang has succeeded in its nuclear quest not just because of the Kim dynasty’s grim determination, but also because its near-total isolation makes sanctions pressure a depreciating asset, while geography makes South Korea a hostage to deter military attacks on the North.
The obstacles to denuclearization and peace remain what they always have been. From the start many of us have cautioned against the irrational exuberance unleashed when the first Trump-Kim summit was announced, preferring to insert question marks where excitable commentators had put in exclamation marks.
So far process and optics have trumped serious negotiations and substance, with more asking and less giving from both sides. In addition, as China-U.S. relations settle into full-spectrum long-term antagonism, Beijing will prove correspondingly less willing to abandon the Kim regime.
Each side misperceives the other as coming to the negotiating table from a position of weakness and therefore vulnerable to even more pressure instead of reciprocal and symmetric concessions. Belying expectations of corresponding measures, both sides attempt to coax irreversible concessions from the other while offering easily withdrawable carrots in return.
Most critically, “denuclearization” is understood too differently for the two sides to come together. For the United States, it means complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. For Kim, it denotes a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including an end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella for Japan and South Korea and perhaps even an end to the U.S. alliance with them and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from East Asia.
The next date on the calendar will be the NPT Review Conference in New York from April 27 to May 22. Will delegates still insist on dealing with North Korea as a nonproliferation problem, or will they shift to think of it as a disarmament problem?
In the meantime, the best we can hope for is a continued moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, North Korea’s nuclear capability held at present levels and the existence of a diplomatic process on life support with open channels of communications between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.
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