U.S. policy wonks and interested observers in the Asia-Pacific will discuss the substance and significance of the recent summit between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un for quite some time. But they’re not the only interested parties.
Outside powers—some well beyond the Pacific—are watching closely, as well.
For instance, the Islamic Republic of Iran will undoubtedly be studying American policy toward North Korea in fine detail looking for opportunities to leverage the United States in any future negotiations on a potential successor pact to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also called the Iran deal.
Tehran could also look to other signatories to the Iran deal (i.e., London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Beijing, and Russia) for support in this regard. After all, those nations publicly opposed —for a range of country-specific interests and reasons—Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA this past May.
This is something America must be aware of, think about and guard against.
It’s fair to say that in some corners, there are grave concerns about economic (re)opening Seoul offered to Pyongyang at the summit. That offer, eagerly accepted by Kim, included reactivating the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea and reconnecting rail and road links between North and South Korea for trade purposes.
When put into effect, these benefits will undoubtedly ease the painful economic pressure being exerted on Pyongyang until now. South Korea’s concessions—which appear to violate UN resolutions and even U.S. law—could also potentially undermine North Korea’s willingness to move forward on the most pressing issue at the moment: progress on denuclearization.
Moreover, Seoul’s precipitous offer comes at an inauspicious time. A yet-to-be-released UN report is widely expected to reveal that Pyongyang has circumvented United Nations economic sanctions placed on it over its nuclear weapon and ballistic-missile activity.
Worse, the report allegedly will show that both Russian and Chinese entities have assisted North Korean sanction-busting smugglers, especially with much-needed energy imports. Pyongyang has been no less successful in moving weapons to conflict zones such as in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, deriving profits and hard currency from these transactions.
The North-South summit also birthed bilateral military agreements and confidence and security-building measures. Both sides pledged to create “buffer zones” and “no-fly zones” and end live-fire military exercises near the land-based Demilitarized Zone and the sea-based Northern Limit Line.
Put it all together, and one could reasonably argue that the North gained much more from the summit than it gave in return. This includes not having done much regarding denuclearizing, other than declaring (again) its intention to destroy an aging ballistic-missile test, development and launch site.
The summit also included hints from Kim to Moon about dismantling the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for unspecified corresponding measures—e.g., possibly removing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula or other concessions—from the United States.
In fairness, we’ll know more about North Korea’s current position on denuclearization as President Moon continues to meet with President Trump in New York City on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings. Furthermore, initial press reports say Moon claims to be bringing positive news from Kim.
But, despite the seeming South Korean largesse toward the North Koreans, Americans should be wary of joining in on similar concessions such as security guarantees or a Korean War peace declaration or treaty. None of these should be made until America has made significant progress on a comprehensive nuclear and ballistic-missile agreement with Pyongyang.
The risk is that if the United States moves beyond diplomatic engagement—to include a possible second Kim-Trump summit—America could open itself to political pressure from Tehran and possibly America’s European allies, to ease snapback sanctions currently being reimposed on both Iran and other JCPOA players.
Washington must avoid placing itself in that position.
Of course, the challenges that Iran and North Korea pose to American security are not the same nor are the international circumstances that surround each difficult proliferation problem. Each security situation is unique in its own troubling ways.
But both issues are critically important for the United States to get right. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that getting North Korea right will be critical to have any chance of getting Iran right at all.
This piece originally appeared in the National Interest