Nobody has a clue as to what is going to happen next week on Tuesday when US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore for the first meeting ever of the countries’ top leaders.
To be even more accurate, we cannot even say with 100% certainty that the meeting will occur, as in the space of only a few days each leader recently seemed to call it off, before calling it back on.
But assuming it happens, what are the most likely outcomes, and how will all of this impact the Iran nuclear situation
and Israeli security?
FIRST, ONE needs to dig under the verbiage.
Both Trump and Kim have talked about negotiating “denuclearization.” The ideal US deal would be that desperately poor North Korea gives up all of its nuclear weapons and its ability to produce new ones for an end to sanctions and a massive infusion of foreign aid and business deals. But from a variety of officials’ statements and analysis from pretty much all prior negotiators with Pyongyang, it defines this differently from Washington.
North Korean officials see two possibilities: a bigger deal and a smaller deal.
A bigger deal, assuming no North Korean cheating (a big “if”), means they really do give up all of their nuclear weapons and ability to produce them, but in exchange not just for economic aid, but for a full withdrawal of the US military from the Korean Peninsula and an end to US “interference.”
A smaller deal means the North gives up something undefined in the nuclear arena – maybe some weapons or some shuttering of some of its nuclear weapons productions facilities – but holds on to some of its nuclear capabilities, present or potential. In exchange, Pyongyang gets sanctions removed and the infusion of foreign aid, and the North, South Korea and the US all sign a peace treaty.
But Kim would not have to fully give up all nuclear weapons or all nuclear production facilities (possibly, they would be shuttered, but could potentially be reopened) and the US would not withdraw from the Korean Peninsula.
There is a giant gulf between US and North Korean expectations. US National Security Adviser John Bolton joined the Trump administration largely to enforce a maximum pressure campaign for the North to irrevocably give up all nuclear capabilities, and fast.
His appointment was taken as a sign that Trump was leaning in that direction.
But Bolton has been recently sidelined on the North Korean issue, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushing him out of a key meeting between a top North Korean official and Trump last week because of his harder-line views.
In addition, Trump said publicly this week that he is no longer using the phrase “maximum pressure,” and Trump is giving Kim the gift of a visit with a US president, and all of the legitimacy that grants, without any significant concession from the North besides a halt to missile tests and promises about the future.
The North also may have dynamited its main underground nuclear test site, but it has a huge range of other nuclear facilities, other spots for testing, and many analysts have said that the site may have already been permanently damaged from overuse.
Furthermore, while Trump threatened briefly to end the summit, he rescheduled it as soon as the North made some public conciliatory statements but, again, without major concessions.
THE US position, then, is very unclear. Will Trump demand full actual denuclearization and within a short time, or will he become more flexible and settle for an eventual peace deal and some concessions on nuclear issues but not all, and over years instead of immediately? And what is likely to come out of the summit? It appears that Trump’s desire to show he is the ultimate deal-maker may overcome his tough bargainer image, which he has used in other areas of the world, such as Iran, and on some global trade issues.
From many prior rounds of negotiation, the North’s public vague statements about denuclearization are likely to devolve into its big and small deal visions.
The US secretary of defense and the US military establishment are dead set against a US military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula.
That is because even if the North were to give up its entire nuclear weapons program, a major “if,” its conventional missile capacity and army could still pose a massive threat to South Korea and Japan – key US allies.
So the big deal is probably out.
That leaves the small deal. In the best case scenario, in light of Trump wanting a deal, Trump and Kim will make some kind of a vague joint statement about denuclearization, which will mean an eventual peace deal and some nuclear concessions drawn out over years, but not actual denuclearization.
NOW WE come to the Iran nuclear situation and Israel.
If Trump settles for a deal with North Korea, where it either gets to keep some bombs or gives up bombs but shutters nuclear facilities without eliminating them, and it is dragged out over years, and North Korea gets freed of the sanctions toward the beginning – isn’t that the same or worse than the Iran nuclear deal he just left? Would this kind of a weak US-North Korea deal undermine the US’s argument to the world for toughening the Iran nuclear deal? There are obvious differences between the cases.
One could say that the North is a bigger threat than Iran, so it should get a better deal because the threat needs to be averted. Pyongyang has many nuclear weapons and, according to some, a possibility of firing an ICBM to hit the US, whereas Iran at most has the potential to rush toward a nuclear weapon in a few months.
Taking the opposite tack, one could say that the North is less dangerous than Iran, as Kim mostly seems focused on ensuring his regime-family’s control and survival, whereas Iran is aggressively sponsoring terrorist groups and instability all over the Middle East.
Based on these arguments, the US could say to the Europeans that it is not seeking a stricter double-standard with Iran as opposed to North Korea; rather, the cases are simply different.
Also, if a permanent bar on ballistic missile tests is part of the deal, that could be argued as achieving something that was left out of the Iran deal.
There might also be benefits of getting to learn from the North Koreans what exactly they have done over the years with Iran, Syria and others in the nuclear arena.
But the North does not need to test missiles as much as Iran anymore.
Many analysts feel they are far ahead of Iran in that nuclear area. And Pyongyang may not have to share any past history as part of the deal.
So the US could try to argue why it can be more lenient toward North Korea, but that argument would probably fall on deaf ears.
At the end of the day, the unavoidable consequence of a deal with Kim that only shutters and does not eliminate the nuclear program, while shuttering it over time and offering sanctions relief near the start, will be to undermine the argument for a tougher nuclear deal with Iran.
This could undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push for isolating Iran, right when he thought that Trump’s leaving the Iran deal and the Mossad’s spectacular appropriation of Iranian nuclear secrets had given Israel the upper hand in isolating Iran.
The Europeans are already worried about Iran’s threats to pull out of the deal and to escalate its uranium enrichment if the EU demands significant changes from them. Maximum pressure on Iran could fall apart.
There is another scenario. Trump could have his cake and eat it, too.
The Europeans may be angry with the inconsistency in the approaches to Iran and North Korea and may want to keep the Iran deal alive.
But the inescapable reality of US economic pressure may overcome their views of Trump’s move. Put differently, the EU may just follow the money.
In short, from the US perspective, any deal with North Korea, weak or strong, may be preferable to continued verbal sparring, which might unpredictably lead to a nuclear conflict.
Maybe very unexpectedly, Trump would back down on Iran following a deal with North Korea, and Iran would scrupulously follow the nuclear deal for many years to come.
But more likely from the Israeli perspective would be that a weak Trump deal with North Korea will make it harder to get Iran to agree to a tougher nuclear deal, and will put Israel, the US and Iran back on a track toward an escalating conflict.