Sum­mit Mis­di­rec­tion: Trump’s North Korea Ploy to Tackle Iran

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Mel Gur­tov

Was trump’s true sin­ga­pore sum­mit agenda to cool ten­sions to gain space for a harsher pol­icy on Iran?

The Don­ald Trump-kim Jong Un Sum­mit meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore on June 12 was a bizarre cha­rade vir­tu­ally de­void of any real sub­stance. The pri­vate chat be­tween the two lead­ers re­sulted in vague prom­ises, no ver­i­fi­able process for de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and even puz­zling con­ces­sions by the US to North Korea over Us-south Korea military ex­er­cises.

But per­haps Trump ac­tu­ally had a plan, writes Mel Gur­tov. By putting North Korea on the back burner and cool­ing ten­sions, Trump may have gained the space he wanted to launch a harsher pol­icy on Iran, an ac­tion that pleases his friends in both Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia.

Us Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump’s sum­mit meet­ing on north Korea’s nu­clear weapons and his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­ver­sal of the mul­ti­lat­eral nu­clear deal with Iran ne­go­ti­ated un­der former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama are be­ing treated as sep­a­rate mat­ters. In this ar­ti­cle, I sug­gest that the two events are re­lated. trump cares far more about bring­ing Iran to heel than cre­at­ing a last­ing nu­clear deal with north Korea. But he may well be us­ing the ap­pear­ance of en­gag­ing north Korea to buy time for pres­sur­ing Iran. Crit­ics on both the right and left have con­demned trump’s vac­u­ous agree­ment with Kim Jong Un, ei­ther for giv­ing away too much or for not ac­com­plish­ing any­thing of sub­stance. the crit­ics make good points, but the con­nec­tion with trump’s Iran pol­icy has yet to be brought out.

sin­ga­pore Cha­rade

“Peace and pros­per­ity,” “last­ing and sta­ble peace,” “peace regime,” “de­nu­cle­ariza­tion,” “new USDPRK relations” — these fine words and phrases dom­i­nate the joint state­ment by Don­ald trump and Kim Jong Un is­sued fol­low­ing their June 12 sum­mit meet­ing in sin­ga­pore. yet, it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe in a con­crete way what they ac­tu­ally agreed to do. the joint state­ment is all hope­ful­ness, sim­i­lar to the tone but with­out the sub­stance of the Py­ongyang Dec­la­ra­tion be­tween Kim Jong Un and south Korea’s Pres­i­dent moon Jae-in. the trump-kim state­ment has noth­ing solid to say about de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, a Korean peace regime, nor­mal­iza­tion of Us-north Korea relations, eco­nomic or military in­cen­tives, ver­i­fi­ca­tion of prom­ises and sched­ules for im­ple­men­ta­tion.

the ac­tual con­ver­sa­tion be­tween trump and Kim lasted less than 30 min­utes and took place in se­cret, with only in­ter­preters present. this is where the trou­ble be­gins: We don’t know if any real agree­ment was reached, and with­out the de­tails, con­trary claims are bound to emerge about who promised what. shortly af­ter the sum­mit, north Korean state me­dia said trump promised to ease sanc­tions and had ac­cepted de­nu­cle­ariza­tion “step by step,” whereas trump in­sisted that sanc­tions will con­tinue and never said he had agreed to a step-by-step pro­ce­dure. that de­bate con­tin­ues un­re­solved. trump said Us military ex­er­cises will be sus­pended — Ulchi Free­dom Guardian, sched­uled for au­gust, has al­ready been can­celled — but surely, many kinds of small-scale joint ex­er­cises with south Korea’s military will go on. and what about Kim’s prom­ise of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion? Does it ap­ply to Us nu­clear-ca­pa­ble ships and planes in east asia that com­prise ex­tended de­ter­rence? Does it stop re­search and de­vel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons and long-range mis­siles? Will “de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” mean any­thing be­yond a hoped-for goal?

the joint state­ment is thus fair game for crit­ics of trump, my­self in­cluded. yet I have to ac­knowl­edge that for all the weak­nesses not only of the state­ment but also of trump’s en­tire ap­proach to deal­ing with north Korea — the sanc­tions, the threats, the boasts, the ig­nor­ing of ex­perts, the false claims about pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions’ poli­cies, the in­sen­si­tiv­ity to south Korean and Ja­panese in­ter­ests — in the end we are bet­ter off hav­ing had the sum­mit than not. surely, no one wants to re­turn to trad­ing threats and in­sults, with the use of force that in the ex­treme could in­clude nu­clear weapons.

still, the sum­mit was more a photo-op than a peace build­ing project. some ob­servers be­lieve, with good rea­son, that Kim Jong Un out­foxed trump — el­e­vat­ing north Korea’s in­terna- tional stand­ing, ob­tain­ing a sus­pen­sion of Us military ex­er­cises and gain­ing sanc­tions re­lief from China and, sur­rep­ti­tiously, from rus­sia, in ex­change for a rep­e­ti­tion of pre­vi­ous north Korean prom­ises to denu­cle­arize.1 at some point, trump will have the mon­u­men­tal job of con­vinc­ing amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing many in his party, that the sin­ga­pore sum­mit solved the prob­lem of north Korea’s nu­clear weapons and that his “ter­rific re­la­tion­ship” with Kim is pay­ing off, not just on the nu­clear is­sue but also with re­gard to north-south relations, north Korea’s mis­siles and cy­ber war ca­pa­bil­i­ties and re­pres­sion of hu­man rights. Oth­er­wise, his gam­ble will have failed and he will look like a fool for hav­ing tried. as he ac­knowl­edged af­ter the sum­mit, “I think he’s [Kim] go­ing to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand be­fore you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever ad­mit that, but I’ll find some kind of an ex­cuse.” Of course he will. 2

post-sum­mit Ques­tions

mean­time, and pre­dictably, both sides at the sin­ga­pore sum­mit have claimed vic­tory. Kim Jong Un, hav­ing shared the stage with trump, can say that north Korea is now rec­og­nized de facto as a nu­clear-weapons state, with his arse­nal of per­haps 60 weapons in­tact. trump can claim, as he tweeted on June 13, that “there is no longer a nu­clear threat from north Korea,” al­though he no­ti­fied Congress less than two weeks later, in jus­ti­fy­ing the con­tin­u­a­tion of eco­nomic sanc­tions, that north Korea’s “ac­tions and poli­cies of the Govern­ment of north Korea con­tinue to pose an un­usual and ex­tra­or­di­nary threat” to the Us.3 Both men can claim to be great ne­go­tia­tors and just great guys — as trump ac­tu­ally did say of Kim.

as of septem­ber, how­ever, the nu­clear is­sue and the process for bring­ing about nor­mal relations be­tween the Us and north Korea re­mained

up in the air. this is where more ques­tions arise about trump’s con­duct in sin­ga­pore, where he made no dis­cernible head­way to­ward achiev­ing the stated ob­jec­tive of “com­plete, ir­re­versible, ver­i­fi­able de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” of north Korea. Why was he so will­ing to sign on to a fi­nal state­ment in which Kim of­fered noth­ing more than a vague “com­mit­ment” to de­nu­cle­ariza­tion? Why did trump fail to go along with John Bolton’s in­sis­tence that a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion agree­ment should cover every as­pect of ura­nium en­rich­ment and plu­to­nium pro­cess­ing, mis­siles, and chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons?4 Why did trump de­cide to sus­pend Us military ex­er­cises, a gift to both north Korea and China? He surely pleased Kim Jong Un even more by call­ing the ex­er­cises “provoca­tive,” not merely ex­pen­sive.

Fi­nally, why did trump feel com­pelled to lav­ish praise on Kim? Ig­nor­ing the north Korea gu­lag and the stal­in­ist char­ac­ter of Kim’s regime, trump ac­tu­ally in­sisted (twice) that Kim “loves his peo­ple,” as­sured us Kim is “very honor­able” and ex­pressed ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the hard job Kim has had keep­ing or­der in his so­ci­ety.5 such ex­tra­or­di­nary flat­tery speaks to trump’s fas­ci­na­tion with dic­ta­tors and envy (pre­vi­ously ex­pressed about Vladimir Putin, Xi Jin­ping and ro­drigo Duterte) for their iron-fisted rule. It also speaks to trump’s lack of in­ter­est in hu­man rights, an omis­sion that caught the at­ten­tion of the Un spe­cial rap­por­teur on hu­man rights in north Korea.6

But his re­marks also sup­port the no­tion that trump is anx­ious to side­line north Korea mat­ters while he con­fronts Iran — an idea reaf­firmed when Us sec­re­tary of state mike Pom­peo, tes­ti­fy­ing July 25 be­fore the se­nate Com­mit­tee on For­eign relations about whether de­nu­cle­ariza­tion in­cluded chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal as well as nu­clear weapons, made the as­tound­ing state­ment: “the north Kore­ans un­der­stand pre­cisely the def­i­ni­tion of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and agreed.” this was as­tound­ing be­cause the state­ment came amidst Us in­tel­li­gence re­ports that north Korea con­tin­ues to work on nu­clear and mis­sile im­prove­ments, in­clud­ing a new long-range mis­sile and pro­duc­tion of more fis­sile ma­te­rial.

the iran CON­NEC­TION

Prior to the trump-kim sum­mit, the con­ven­tional wis­dom was that over­turn­ing the Iran deal would make deal­ing with north Korea much harder for trump. Iran ac­tu­ally warned the north Kore­ans not to trust trump. But as the sum­mit ap­proached, I came to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion: trump would want to put the north Korea sit­u­a­tion on the back burner for a while in or­der to pre­pare for more forcibly con­fronting Iran. the north Kore­ans may even have sensed that, and took ad­van­tage by push­ing for a fi­nal state­ment bereft of de­tails.

What might have been trump’s cal­cu­la­tion? For his own po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal rea­sons, pro­tect­ing Is­rael and saudi ara­bia is much more im­por­tant to him and his far-right sup­port­ers than pro­tect­ing south Korea and Ja­pan. as he sees it — judg­ing from re­marks dur­ing and since his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — the south Kore­ans and the Ja­panese are in a po­si­tion to do a great deal more for their own se­cu­rity. they should be pay­ing more for Us military pro­tec­tion, and south Korea should be pre­par­ing for the exit of Us troops. Ja­pan and south Korea should also be buy­ing more amer­i­can weapons and rec­ti­fy­ing their trade sur­pluses with the Us. (Un­til they do, Ja­pan will not be ex­empted from the Us sanc­tions on Iran that af­fect oil im­ports. south Korea and the Us reached a new trade agree­ment in march that was quite fa­vor­able to Us auto and steel makers.) should north Korea be­gin denuclearizing, trump in­sists that south, Ja­pan, and other coun­tries will con­trib­ute all the aid nec­es­sary for north Korea’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. If south Korea and Ja­pan were to de­cide to go

nu­clear them­selves, that might be just fine with trump: It would en­able him to end the Us com­mit­ment to ex­tended de­ter­rence.

Weak­en­ing, if not jet­ti­son­ing, tra­di­tional Us al­liances has be­come a cen­tral el­e­ment of trump’s for­eign pol­icy. He made his pri­or­i­ties clear when, within one week, he turned his back on the G-7 group and per­son­ally as­sailed Canada’s prime min­is­ter (sup­pos­edly in or­der not to ap­pear weak at the sin­ga­pore sum­mit) while mak­ing prom­ises to Kim Jong Un that left the south Kore­ans and the Ja­panese out on a limb. en­cour­ag­ing Ja­pan to de­velop a “nor­mal” military role in east asia and leav­ing south Korea to find a new com­fort zone with north Korea would free trump to fo­cus on his much higher pri­or­ity, namely, pro­vid­ing what­ever the Is­raelis and saudis want to iso­late and desta­bi­lize Iran.

start­ing well be­fore trump’s elec­tion and con­tin­u­ing to the present, the Is­raelis tar­geted him as their ticket to com­bat­ing Iran. Obama’s bit­ter re­la­tion­ship with Ben­jamin ne­tanyahu, his

Iran ac­tu­ally warned the North Kore­ans not to trust Trump. But as the sum­mit ap­proached, I came to the con­clu­sion that Trump would want to put the North Korea sit­u­a­tion on the back burner for a while in or­der to pre­pare for more forcibly con­fronting Iran. The North Kore­ans may even have sensed that, and took ad­van­tage by push­ing for a fi­nal state­ment bereft of de­tails.

crit­i­cisms of saudi ara­bia and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­clude a nu­clear deal with tehran gave the Is­raelis rea­son to hope that they might ally with the saudis as well as the United arab emi­rates (Uae) in con­fronting Iran. Per­sonal ties be­tween Is­raeli of­fi­cials and trump’s team, and money from the Uae and Qatar that ap­par­ently was fun­neled into trump’s cam­paign, fa­cil­i­tated in­fil­trat­ing and in­flu­enc­ing a very in­ex­pe­ri­enced new ad­min­is­tra­tion. By the time trump took of­fice, poli­cies fa­vor­able to Is­rael and its arab friends were top pri­or­i­ties.7

this can be seen in trump’s de­ci­sion to move the Us em­bassy to Jerusalem and declar­ing ac­cep­tance of Jerusalem as the Is­raeli cap­i­tal; with­drawal of the Us from the Un Hu­man rights Coun­cil to protest al­leged bias to­ward Is­rael; Us arms sales to saudi ara­bia and sup­port of its in­ten­si­fied bomb­ing in yemen; trump’s fail­ure to ad­vance any se­ri­ous peace plan that would ac­com­mo­date Pales­tinian con­cerns; his sid­ing with saudi ara­bia in its dis­pute with Qatar; the

ef­forts by his rep­re­sen­ta­tives to ob­tain fi­nan­cial sup­port from the Gulf states for trump’s elec­tion; and trump’s let­ter (of­fi­cially un­ac­knowl­edged) to Per­sian Gulf al­lies de­mand­ing that they re­lieve the Us of its fi­nan­cial bur­den (“$7 tril­lion,” he said with typ­i­cal ex­ag­ger­a­tion) in syria and Iraq, thereby seek­ing to so­lid­ify sup­port for Us poli­cies there and else­where.8

trump is not alone in the ad­min­is­tra­tion when it comes to tar­get­ing Iran. Be­sides Pom­peo, whose speech on Iran pol­icy is dis­sected be­low, John Bolton is well known for sup­port­ing regime change in tehran, and rudy Gi­u­liani, the pres­i­dent’s lawyer, has lately been out­spo­ken in call­ing for regime change. In fact, one of Gi­u­liani’s for­eign clients is mu­ja­hedin-e-khalq, leader of an Ira­nian antigov­ern­ment group with a vi­o­lent past that was on the state Depart­ment’s ter­ror­ist list un­til late in 2012.

the us threat to iran

On may 21, Pom­peo ad­dressed Iran pol­icy in the com­fort of the right-wing Heritage Foun­da­tion. One could hear the cheers all the way from tel aviv and riyadh. Far from of­fer­ing a rea­son­able al­ter­na­tive strat­egy for deal­ing with Iran’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, how­ever, Pom­peo threat­ened regime change and made im­pos­si­ble de­mands on Iran that could lead to war. Fol­low­ing is an anal­y­sis of the key points of his speech.

The Threat: Very much in the spirit of “max­i­mum pres­sure” on north Korea, Pom­peo de­clared: “the Ira­nian regime should know that this is just the be­gin­ning. af­ter our sanc­tions come into full force, it will be bat­tling to keep its econ­omy alive. Iran will be forced to make a choice — ei­ther fight to keep its econ­omy off life sup­port at home or keep squan­der­ing pre­cious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the re­sources to do both.” What Pom­peo did not ex­plain is how, in the words of the euro­pean Union’s for­eign af­fairs spe­cial­ist, “walk­ing away from the JCPOA [the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of ac­tion, the of­fi­cial name of the nu­clear deal] has made or will make the re­gion safer from the threat of nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion or how it puts us in a bet­ter po­si­tion to in­flu­ence Iran’s con­duct in ar­eas out­side the scope of JCPOA. there is no al­ter­na­tive to the JCPOA.”

9 In­deed, as of this mo­ment, in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors re­main con­vinced that Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram is in com­pli­ance with the JCPOA.

The Ob­jec­tive is Regime Change: “the West of­ten treats Pres­i­dent rouhani and For­eign min­is­ter Zarif as apart from the regime’s un­wise, ter­ror­ist and malign be­hav­iors. yet, rouhani and Zarif are your elected lead­ers. are they not the most re­spon­si­ble for your eco­nomic strug­gles? are these two not re­spon­si­ble for wast­ing Ira­nian lives through the mid­dle east? It is worth the Ira­nian peo­ple con­sid­er­ing.” to which Iran’s For­eign min­is­ter Javad Zarif tweeted that the Us po­si­tion is “merely a re­gres­sion to old habits: im­pris­oned by delu­sions & failed poli­cies — dic­tated by cor­rupt spe­cial In­ter­ests — it re­peats the same wrong choices and will thus reap the same ill re­wards. Iran, mean­while, is work­ing with part­ners for post-us JCPOA so­lu­tions.”

The Oversell: “We will en­sure free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion on the wa­ters in the re­gion. We will work to pre­vent and coun­ter­act any Ira­nian malign cy­ber ac­tiv­ity. We will track down Ira­nian op­er­a­tives and their Hezbol­lah prox­ies op­er­at­ing around the world and crush them. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dom­i­nate the mid­dle east.” re­ally? “Dom­i­nate the mid­dle east?” sounds like a ver­sion of the old yel­low peril ar­gu­ment.

The Im­pos­si­ble De­mands: Pom­peo listed 12 de­mands (see the box op­po­site) and gave every in­di­ca­tion that the list is “all or noth­ing.” there is no chance Iran will meet any of the de­mands, which are non-ne­go­tiable and amount to Iran ced­ing con­trol of its na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy to the Us.

In any case, the list is a throw­away de­signed to ra­tio­nal­ize deeper sanc­tions and a hoped-for dis­rup­tion of Iran so­ci­ety.10 more re­cently, Pom­peo men­tioned three con­di­tions for en­gag­ing Iran: they should “demon­strate a com­mit­ment to make fun­da­men­tal changes in how they treat their own peo­ple, re­duce their malign be­hav­ior,” and “en­ter into a nu­clear agree­ment that ac­tu­ally pre­vents pro­lif­er­a­tion.” But these con­di­tions are

11 equally dis­in­cen­tives for ne­go­ti­a­tions. thus, euro­pean al­lies are dis­cussing ways to get around the Us sanc­tions, and Iran’s de­ci­sion on go­ing nu­clear is on hold, with hard­lin­ers around the ay­a­tol­lah re­port­edly press­ing him to go ahead.


trump is cor­rect to say that get­ting to de­nu­cle­ariza­tion is a lengthy “process” — a word he used quite a bit af­ter meet­ing with Kim yong-chol, Kim Jong Un’s per­sonal rep­re­sen­ta­tive, ahead of the sum­mit, on June 1.12 But the process it­self should have pre­ceded the sum­mit, with diplo­matic en­gage­ment paving the way to agree­ment on step-by-step de-es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions, time points for es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic relations and ver­i­fi­ca­tion of nu­clear weapons re­duc­tion or re­moval. the ab­sence of a process, the hasti­ness of a vague joint state­ment, and the sub­se­quent ex­changes of po­lite let­ters be­tween trump and Kim might sug­gest care­less­ness, a de­sire only for a photo-op and an ego-sat­is­fy­ing place in his­tory — or that trump re­ally is con­vinced he

13 has neu­tral­ized the north Korean threat and can safely turn to deal­ing with Iran.

trump’s men­tion on July 30 of di­rect talks with Iran with­out pre­con­di­tions was not only un­ex­pected; it was con­trary to Pom­peo’s out­line of three con­di­tions. “any­time they want,” trump said, adding, “I don’t know that they’re ready yet. they’re hav­ing a hard time right now.” In­deed they are: protests against harsh eco­nomic con­di­tions are tak­ing place all over Iran, in con­trast with sanc­tions on north Korea that can­not have the same ef­fect. On aug. 6, the Us made life even more dif­fi­cult for Iran’s mid­dle class and ma­jor en­ter­prises when it re­newed sanc­tions and penal­ties against euro­pean and other com­pa­nies that do busi­ness with it. John Bolton, speak­ing in Is­rael in au­gust, vowed that sanc­tions would bring Iran’s oil ex­ports to zero. He dis­tin­guished “max­i­mum pres­sure” on Iran from a pol­icy of regime change. to tehran, that’s a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence, and one more likely to lead to fur­ther mis­chief in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries than to ac­ced­ing to Us threats.14

In a nut­shell, trump is all in when it comes to cur­ry­ing fa­vor with ne­tanyahu and saudi Crown Prince mo­ham­mad bin salman. With north Korea, trump has lim­ited lever­age, ev­i­denced by his blam­ing China for de­cid­ing on aug. 24 to can­cel Pom­peo’s sched­uled fourth visit to Py­ongyang. trump cited lack of “suf­fi­cient progress” in de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, but sent Kim Jong-un good wishes. With Iran, on the other hand, trump has Is­rael and saudi ara­bia as prox­ies for car­ry­ing out regime change. the north Korea nu­clear is­sue is far from set­tled and ripe for mis­un­der­stand­ing, and the op­por­tu­nity Obama cre­ated with the nu­clear deal with Iran to find com­mon ground on other mid­dle east is­sues has been squan­dered. these twin fail­ures spell big trou­ble ahead, and the only thing stop­ping trump from tak­ing more de­ci­sive steps is his vul­ner­a­bil­ity as the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ties to rus­sia con­tinue.

Mel gur­tov is pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus, port­land state uni­ver­sity (ore­gon); se­nior Edi­tor, Asian Per­spec­tive; au­thor most re­cently of En­gag­ing Ad­ver­saries: Peace­mak­ing and Diplo­macy in the Hu­man In­ter­est (row­man & lit­tle­field, 2018). he blogs at https://mel­gur­

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