With U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un to prepare for a summit meeting went “very smoothly,” demands for a strategy for the direct talks become even more pressing.
While the Iran nuclear deal contains technical constraints and verification provisions that provide important groundwork for a North Korea deal, there are five lessons from the deal’s shortcomings that should serve as the main pillars for developing President Trump’s strategy.
1. The leverage from sanctions is strongest now and difficult to rebuild. Go for a permanent deal. The Iran deal was the first major arms control deal of its kind, where tough, multilateral sanctions provided the leverage for the deal, and their removal was a central part of the agreement. At the heart of the concerns about the Iran deal is that it is not permanent. The sanctions were removed, but several of the most important provisions blocking the pathways to their nuclear weapons development expire within a decade or so. It took years to build a global consensus for Iranian sanctions. It would take a long time to rebuild that pressure after the constraints expire, longer than it would take for the Iranians to rebuild their program.
The same would be true for North Korea. Among the approaches that are being publicly debated is that the administration should take a phased approach ― first seek to achieve a freeze and then pursue follow-on negotiations to achieve denuclearization. This would be a grave mistake. A phased approach will only kick the crisis down the road, as the consensus to maintain sanctions diminishes after a freeze.
The U.S. has the economic leverage now and should remain steadfast on demanding a permanent deal that requires North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program and return to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The U.S. removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s. South Korea and North Korea’s other regional neighbors are permanently bound by the nonproliferation treaty. North Korea is the outlier in the region.
2. Include verifiable constraints on ballistic missiles. The last-minute rush to include ballistic missiles in the Iran talks led to an ambiguous solution. Ballistic missile constraints were not included in the deal itself, but rather were addressed in a weak provision in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the deal, which only “called upon” Iran to not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. In diplomatic parlance, that is not a clear prohibition and one the Iranians have not felt obligated to abide by. The result has been the erosion of trust in the overall deal.
The threat of the North Korean ballistic missile program includes the significant threats the missiles present to our allies in the region and to our homeland. Ballistic missiles are also a central part of North Korea’s destabilizing black market proliferation, from which it derives important economic benefits. Given the rapid advancement of the North Korea ballistic missile program, these missiles need to be constrained quantitatively and qualitatively, and the proliferation of missiles and missile parts need to be halted by carefully considered, verifiable provisions.
3. Get congressional approval. As the past couple of years have underscored, domestic support is essential for the U.S. to be able to fulfill its obligations under the Iran deal. A nuclear deal with North Korea will need to have domestic support, and that can only be successfully achieved with congressional approval.
The Iran deal was concluded as an executive agreement that did not require the approval of Congress. Although a compromise was eventually reached to consider a resolution of disapproval, the spadework was not done to build and ensure domestic support for the agreement.
President Trump will basically have two options for congressional approval: Submit the deal as a treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, or follow President Richard Nixon’s model of submitting the interim agreement of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Tready (SALT I) as an executive agreement that requires an up-or-down majority vote in both houses of Congress. While the former is preferable on constitutional grounds, the latter is at least a better option than circumventing Congress and leaving the domestic support unattended and vulnerable to erosion.
4. Let China provide the carrots. The U.S. is better at sticks. As the struggle with waiving sanctions in the Iran deal demonstrates, the U.S. is better at putting sanctions on an authoritarian regime than it is at taking them off and providing economic benefits. This will be equally as difficult, if not more so, with the Kim regime, which has one of the worst human rights records globally and whose economy is built on black markets. While the U.S. will have certain responsibilities to enforce the terms of a deal if negotiated, the responsibility for the longer-term incentives should shift to China. It has a lot to offer: security guarantees, by strengthening its 1961 mutual assistance agreement; more investment in North Korean industry and infrastructure; membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and integration into its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, among others.
5. Get the support of our allies. A significant achievement of the Iran deal is that it was negotiated by a coalition of partners ― the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, Germany and China. Nonetheless, its main shortcoming is that it did not have the support of regional allies ― most importantly, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The lack of regional support, dramatically demonstrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress against the deal, has contributed to the erosion of America’s commitment to the deal.
A North Korea deal will ultimately fail without the support of our regional allies ― most importantly, South Korea and Japan. If our regional partners do not feel secure, there are many ways the agreement could be undermined, including, perhaps, most importantly, with the dangerous conclusion that their security is at risk under the agreement and that they need to develop their own nuclear weapons.