The US president hoped to sign a denuclearisation agreement with North Korea even as he tore up America’s participation in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Much of the Trump administration’s policy is hard to fathom, as is North Korea’s. They have gone back to playing hardball with each other as I write this. But differentiating between the world’s two great proliferation problems makes some sense despite the uncertainty.
These two problems are in fact connected. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear program have deep and long-standing linkages that involve mutual help and the use of each other for cover at critical junctures. We saw this again in 2017, when Iran tested a ballistic missile at the height of the U.S. stand-off with North Korea.
The linkage between the two problems emerges not from their similarities but from the potential to proliferate, including to each other.
Those linkages do not mean that the problems are identical. Iran received important sanctions relief in the 2015 nuclear deal, even though the U.S. is now re-imposing sanctions. North Korea, by contrast, is under increasingly biting sanctions. Iran is only a threshold nuclear power. North Korea is already a nuclear weapon state. Iran has not cheated on the 2015 nuclear deal, but it remains a major regional threat. The Iranian regime has been financing and arming, including with missiles, militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. By contrast, North Korea has a long history of breaking agreements. But it hasn’t instigated armed factions in its neighbours’ territories, not to mention arming them with missiles. Its danger to its neighbours lies in its ballistic threat which it would only exercise in a fit of pre-emptive (and ultimately suicidal) self-defence.
The linkage between the two problems emerges not from their similarities but from the potential to proliferate, including to each other. The proliferation record of North Korea towards Pakistan and the Middle East implies that North Korea might share of the designs for its warheads. They might also sell the design and parts of its more recent solid fuel ballistic missiles. It has carried out missile sales in the past, and repeatedly demanded cash payments to end the practice. North Korea has also tested the submarine-launched missile that Iran wants for its arsenal. Iran has the cash for North Korea to develop the nuclear-powered ship both desire.
Vive La Différence
Whether it is by happenstance or by design, Trump’s initiatives have built on the differences between Iran and North Korea. In the case of Iran, the missile issue now seems to be paramount. Both the US-French-UK strikes on Syria, and the more devastating Israeli attack sent the message that missile sites in Iran could be hit easily. And nukes without missiles are less of an imminent threat.
That is also the line implicitly taken by Secretary Pompeo on North Korea. But the regional implications in northeast Asia are very different. Doing away with the North Korean long-range threat against America clearly signals the US is interested in America First and leaves regional allies exposed to mid- and short-range ballistic threats. Nonetheless, ending North Korea’s nuclear program (as Secretary Pompeo’s proposed) but leaving the existing arsenal in place for the short-term does makes sense. The US policy on North Korea will rise or fall based on the degree of quick and intrusive verification that US can obtain from North Korea. And it is easier to verify the destruction of missiles than to search for nuclear warheads or even uranium enrichment sites.
The Iranian situation is different. Iranian President Rouhani does not have the domestic control that Kim Jong-un has achieved. And Iran remains legally bound by IAEA inspections. Donald Trump can rely on strong regional allies – Israel, the Saudis and the other Gulf States, and Egypt to help contain Iran. To avoid conflict, Trump will still need to change his line and embrace European efforts to persuade Iran to stay with the nuclear deal and accede to curbs on its missile programs and troublesome regional behaviour.
In this context, Europe’s most useful role is to push for steady American policies – a tall order given that North Korea and Donald Trump are currently competing with each other to cancel their summit. It is also to convince Iran that a compromise on missiles is in its own interest. Finally, it should liaise with regional Asian partners and ensure that negotiations with North Korea do not only focus on missiles and ensure that it starts de-nuclearizing as well.