It’s not clear what U.S. President Donald Trump thinks he can accomplish when he meets with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in May. The decision to hold a summit with the leader of the rogue regime came as a surprise to most foreign-policy observers.
But if it lessens the chances of conflict with Pyongyang, it’s likely that many of those who have been loudly asserting that Trump’s insults aimed at North Korean were irresponsible and provocations to war won’t be complaining. It was a typical Trump coup that highlighted his political unpredictability and willingness to improvise—and that ignored the advice of experts. With fears of North Korean’s nuclear arsenal and its successful tests of missiles to deliver those horrifying weapons rising in Asia, carping about Trump’s unorthodox methods won’t carry much weight if his diplomatic mission succeeds.
But while Trump’s instinctual distrust of the foreign-policy establishment has already paid dividends in the Middle East, that doesn’t mean he is necessarily doing the smart thing by freelancing in this manner in Asia. Trump’s reported reluctance to wade through background material and position papers may prove a real handicap in dealing with the intractable problem of the Korean peninsula and the Communist regime that has inflicted so much misery on its people. More to the point, what we now have to ponder is whether the same disdain for the supposed “adults” who led to wise decisions on Jerusalem and trying to hold the Palestinians accountable for terror is about to sink any hope for curbing another deadly threat to the West: Iran.
Though America’s European allies seem reluctant to make changes in this regard, Trump’s belief that the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor must be renegotiated or supplemented is correct. The pact will expire within a decade—meaning that Iran will then have the right to restart its weapons project and proceed swiftly to the acquisition of a bomb, allowing the West no legal recourse to stop these measures.
Just as serious is the fact that the deal has enriched and emboldened Tehran as it pursues its long-range goal of regional hegemony. It is impossible to understand Iran’s successful intervention in the Syrian civil war except in the context of the nuclear negotiations conducted by the Obama administration, in which Washington refrained from any move that might anger the ayatollahs. The U.S. decision to punt on Obama’s pledge to enforce a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—Iran’s client—and to essentially hand off the country to Russia was explicable only as part of a diplomatic offensive intended to entice Tehran to agree to a nuclear agreement at any price.
That means that if Iran is to be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon and solidifying its hold on what is essentially a land corridor to the Mediterranean across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it will require Western resolve to force it to accept the end of the deal’s sunset clause, as well as implement new restrictions on its missile program and foreign adventures.
But what America’s allies (and its Russian and Chinese rivals) also know is that the U.S. government could still compel them to refrain from doing business with Iran—or else pay a terrible economic price for that. Even if no other country agreed to the re-imposition of punitive sanctions on Iran that could force the Islamist regime back to the table, they would be compelled to do so if faced with the credible threat of being cut off from transactions with U.S. banks and other financial entities.
It remains to be seen whether Trump has the will to force the world to accept his correct evaluation of the Iran deal. But the fate of the campaign to renegotiate the Iran deal may be decided in Korea.
The unavoidable fact facing the Trump administration is that mistakes by its predecessors have put the United States in a position where it is dealing from a position of weakness vis-à-vis North Korea. A weak nuclear deal struck with Kim Jong Un’s father by the Clinton administration paved the way for a nuclear breakthrough. The North Koreans had no compunction about breaking their word to Clinton envoy Wendy Sherman, who went on to conduct similarly one-sided negotiations with Iran as lead negotiator of the nuclear deal on behalf of President Obama. Now the only thing standing between Pyongyang and the ability to threaten the American mainland is perfecting missile technology.
Since North Korea—a vast Communist prison for its people, the majority of whom are reportedly starving—is already largely cut off from the global economy, it doesn’t fear more sanctions. That means it’s likely that Trump is going to have to give as much, if not more, to North Korea than Obama did to Iran.
Perhaps the president will find a way out of this trap. Even though Trump is prone to alienate partners and potential enemies in phone conversations, he often gets a deal when he meets with people face to face. Which is why Asian experts rightly regard the meeting with the North Koreans with worry.
Owing to the nature of Kim Jung Un, there should be no mistake about the fact that any appeasement of North Korea will eventually backfire. But even if the nature of the threat might compel the U.S. to make another bad deal, such an action will also doom any effort to improve the current devices of the Iran deal.
Just as America’s mistakes with North Korea foreshadowed Obama’s disastrous bargain with Iran, so, too, will Trump’s decisions in Asia dictate the outcome of his efforts to rein in Iran.
The choices Trump faces are daunting. Before he goes through with his decision to give the North Koreans everything they’ve always wanted in terms of a meeting with a U.S. president, he needs to consider whether he’s also about to undermine one of his key foreign-policy goals. This is one example of a time when Trump needs to listen to wiser heads and seek an alternative to a path that seems to promise certain disaster.