July 3, 2019
On April 27, 2018 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the line that has divided the Korean Peninsula for the last 65 years, for a historic summit with President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders signed the three-page “Panmunjom Declaration,” which mentioned the ushering in of a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity, alleviating military tension and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. The declaration also confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” However, this was the last item coming after other measures to ensure the normalization of relations between the two Koreas.
The two leaders also had one-to-one chats.
I asked at the time if Chairman Kim Jong-un, could have told President Moon Jae-in, during these chats, that North Korea had undertaken enormous sacrifice to build its nuclear arsenal which could also be an asset for a reunited Korea hopefully not in a too distant future; that for the time being the two Koreas should try to keep their options open; that Korea had experienced foreign invasions in the past and a reunited nuclear Korea of eighty million people with a vibrant economy could become a global power.
North Korea has reached nuclear power status. That is the reality. The wisdom of nuclear non-proliferation for world security aside, achieving nuclear power status greatly raises a country’s global standing and after years of investment Kim Jong-un is unlikely give that up.
On June 30, following President Trump’s meeting with Chairman Kim Jong-un, Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger of the New York Times wrote that the real idea behind the drop by at the Demilitarized Zone could be creating a foundation for a new round of negotiations. They said:
“The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for…
“While the approach could stop that arsenal from growing, it would not, at least in the near future, dismantle any existing weapons, variously estimated at 20 to 60. Nor would it limit the North’s missile capability…” (*)
State Department’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun, said that this account of the ideas being generated in the administration was “pure speculation”.
Though a potential setback for nuclear non-proliferation and a deeply troubling development for Japan, such a possibility can’t be dismissed outright. In that case, the problem would be deterring other aspirants to nuclear power from following the North Korean example. And, the current non-proliferation regime would have to be strengthened, substantially. Not an easy task in view of the state of relations between major powers.
President Trump started off his North Korea campaign with “fire and fury” and now says that the two leaders are exchanging “beautiful letters” and have an “excellent relationship”.
One may therefore ask, “why not a less confrontational approach towards Iran?” After all, Tehran and the P5+1, including the U.S., negotiated the nuclear deal for over two years and until a few days ago the IAEA confirmed over and over again that Iran was abiding by its commitments.
Trump administration’s policy towards Iran has the twin purposes of dealing with the perceived shortcomings of the nuclear deal and pushing back Iran’s growing regional outreach. Probably, Washington doesn’t see an outreach problem in the case of Pyongyang, at least for now.
Regional countries and others have made a huge mistake by intervening in the Syrian conflict the way they did. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has been another mistake. Both conflicts have offered Iran the opportunity to extend its regional outreach. Nonetheless, containment of Iran through engagement is a less costly way of dealing with the problem than another military conflict. And again, engagement is a better way to try and improve the JCPOA.
Iran sanctions have created a rift between Washington and Europe. Although they are said to target the regime, they are having the biggest impact on Iranian people. These sanctions are also creating problems for Tehran’s neighbors, especially Iraq and Turkey. In the 1990s Turkey paid a higher price for Iraq sanctions than any other country. Neighbors always having to bear the brunt of sanctions in a troubled region is unfair.
None of the current saber-rattling is a good investment in the future of the Middle East.