On Friday, US President Donald Trump did an about-face on his North Korea policy when he told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel his planned visit.For many North Korea and Iran analysts, this is the moment they have waited for: Will Trump stick to his guns and try to negotiate a tough deal with Pyongyang like he has said, even at the risk of his deal-cutting legacy being scattered to the wind? Or will he compromise more than he has said he would in order to secure a deal, even if it is less tough? If Trump stays tough or shows a soft side to North Korea, will that be a game-changing moment for the nuclear standoff with Iran? The coming days will be crucial, given Trump’s behavior leading into the historic June 12 Singapore Summit with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Shortly before the summit, Trump called it off, citing foot-dragging by Pyongyang in its readiness to compromise, while at the same time leaving an opening if Kim showed greater flexibility.The gambit worked. Kim wanted the summit badly enough that he quickly agreed to sign on to further concessions, at least in principle. Trump then agreed the summit was back on.Will history repeat itself? Trump called off Pompeo, but again left an opening and saved most of his criticism for China.He also gave Pompeo license to appoint a new and highly-respected North Korea envoy, Steve Biegun.Usually, leaders do not appoint new envoys to lead negotiations for a process that they are going to completely walk out on a week later. Likewise, to date when North Korea, or its state-sponsored microphones, have criticized the US, it has focused its anger on hawkish Trump advisers like Pompeo and National Secretary Adviser John Bolton. Pyongyang has carefully avoided criticizing Trump, and has mostly warned that the well-meaning president might be fooled by his advisers.From Trump’s canceling Pompeo’s visit but refraining from any criticism of Kim, it appears that Trump has not committed to a digging in his heels position versus moving toward Pyongyang’s demands.The main sticking point is Pompeo’s demand (consistent with prior US administrations) that North Korea significantly advance to nuclear disarmament before the US declares peace with Pyongyang.In contrast, Kim is demanding the US move most of the way toward peace before it makes further dramatic denuclearization moves.The sides are also fighting about who has made greater concessions to date.Overall, if Kim does not make a dramatic gesture toward Trump, it’s likely the American leader will walk away and further ratchet up the pressure.The worrisome signs are coming not only from his main advisers but from last week’s IAEA report that the North is not denuclearizing. Also of significance, Trump may be ready to admit negotiations are at a standstill two months after the summit. With Trump’s penchant for defining foreign relations with his tweets, many analysts believed it would take half a year and a new North Korean missile test before he acknowledged the stalemate.But Trump has lost patience with Kim much faster.Trump may still be willing to make concessions and withdraw US military forces in South Korea, something previous American presidents were not prepared to do. But not before Kim antes up.The lesson for Iran is two-fold. From one perspective, Trump wants to deal. He may be willing to entertain concessions and ideas unacceptable to other American leaders. For example, unlike Obama he has offered to meet with Iran’s ayatollahs.However, he is likely to maintain his demand for the central concessions he expects from the other side, even if it means losing the ultimate deal.Moreover, historically he has shown a greater affinity toward a deal with North Korea and greater interest in regime change regarding Iran.After 20 months as president, Trump is getting close to defining his first-term legacy regarding North Korea and Iran.
Trump calls off Pompeo"s planned trip to North Korea, August 24, 2018 (Reuters)