Analysis

How Trump's Iran Deal Bombshell Makes North Korea Even More Dangerous

Trump’s move undermines American credibility and gives North Korea the perfect excuse to avoid deal-making

Anti-nuclear activists wearing masks of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un as they demonstrate in front of the U.S. embassy in Berlin, September 2017.
BRITTA PEDERSEN/AFP

It was clearly too politically painful for President Donald Trump, after repeating over and over that the Iran deal was a “bad deal,” to be put in the position of holding his nose and re-certifying the deal every 90 days. That’s the reason that Trump bucked the advice of his own senior officials Friday, and took the gamble of throwing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal into Congress’ court, falling just short of killing the Iran deal himself, but holding a knife to its throat and threatening to finish it off if it is not toughened up to his satisfaction. 

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But in doing so, he has increased the likelihood of not one, but two possible nuclear confrontations – and the more immediate danger is not Iran, but North Korea. 

Why? Though many – including his own advisers – acknowledged that Iran is in compliance with the conditions of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Trump used Iran’s bad behavior in other arenas to justify his action, making the case for decertification not on the grounds that Iran had violated the agreement, but that it had strayed from the “spirit” of the deal. 

Surely North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his officials in Pyongyang were listening carefully, as they determine whether to stick to their belligerent hard line and provocative missile launches in a march towards military confrontation with the West, or to take a step back from the brink of a deadly and suicidal direction by coming to the negotiating table to discuss putting some kind of limit on its provocation. 

Trump himself referred to North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities in his remarks on the Iran deal, noting that “as we have seen in North Korea, the longer we ignore a threat, the worse that threat becomes."

In his speech, Trump made more than a theoretical connection between Iran and North Korea. “There are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea,” he said.” I am going to instruct our intelligence agencies to do a thorough analysis and report back their findings beyond what they have already reviewed.” Trump has tweeted such suspicions in the past.

There has been much speculation regarding Iranian-North Korean cooperation in conservative Republican circles in the past few years, though no current or former U.S. security officials have ever confirmed it on the record. News reports as late as last month state “little to no hard evidence has been presented to suggest that the Iranians are currently working with Pyongyang to enhance their nuclear program, and intelligence suggests North Korea is still addressing issues with its own efforts.”

Immediately after he made his Friday announcement that he was decertifying the Iran agreement, Trump held an impromptu press conference on the South Lawn at the White House, where he was asked about the continuing tensions with North Korea. “If something happens when we negotiate, I am open to that. But if something other than negotiations happens we are more than ready.” 

But the U.S. president’s controversial decision on Iran policy Friday pushed the odds of “something other than negotiations” occurring with North Korea significantly higher.

First and foremost, it further damages the already-crippled American credibility. As he did with his withdrawal from previous agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump is delivering a clear message that the U.S. can’t be trusted to remain in agreements it signs and that future presidents can easily renege on whatever their predecessors pledge to uphold – essentially, that the U.S. can’t be counted on to hold up its side of a bargain and keep its word. 

Unlike trade and environment agreements, however, this kind of reversal can have immediate and deadly consequences when it comes to the volatile nuclear-armed North Korean leadership. The chances that they would be willing to talk about reining in their nuclear strike capabilities may have been slim, but this reduces them even further.

The North Koreans now know that even if they come to the negotiating table and even if they comply with the terms of whatever deal on its nuclear program they reach, like the Iranians did, the deal can be undermined by any behavior a U.S. president finds unacceptable. Until now, the issue regarding agreements with “rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea was the dubious trustworthiness of the other side – the Iranians and the North Koreans. Trump’s moves shift the spotlight of doubt to American credibility and give such regimes the perfect excuse to avoid deal-making. 

Congressional Democrats like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy pointed this out ahead of Trump’s announcement, warning that decertification could have dire consequences, when it comes to North Korea. 

“The decision by Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement, almost guarantees that Kim Jong-Un will not negotiate with America,” said Murphy. “If the message we send to the North Koreans is that we don’t uphold our end of nuclear agreements, why on Earth would North Korea enter into a new nuclear agreement?”

Furthermore, Trump’s decertification reduces the chances that the rest of the international community will take the risk of partnering with the U.S. on addressing the North Korean crisis. The co-signers of the Iran agreement – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany also now view the White House as an unreliable partner. Winning their support and cooperation on any measures regarding North Korea will now be even more difficult. This is particularly problematic in the case of China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and considered an indispensable partner to any attempt to put pressure on Pyongyang. 

Experts note that even in a long-shot best-case scenario for Trump – one in which the Iran deal is somehow revised and toughened by Congress and agreed to by the other signatories to the JCPOA and Iran – and if the North Koreans do agree to sit down – it still makes any accommodation with them more remote. 

“A revised Iran deal would also indicate that the United States and North Korea are moving farther apart in terms of what might be a mutually acceptable solution,” wrote noted Korea scholar Troy Stangarone. “North Korea previously rejected an Iran-style deal as a means to resolving the dispute over its nuclear program. While there is a good case to be made that North Korea has no interest in a negotiated solution, if one is on the table, North Korea would expect better conditions than Iran originally received, something “hawks” in Congress such as Senator Tom Cotton signal would be unacceptable. A more stringent Iran deal would only widen the gap between what the U.S. might offer and what North Korea might accept."