SEOUL — President Trump’s determination to undermine the Iran nuclear deal could undercut his hopes for quick success in the upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, many in South Korea fear.
Former high-level South Korean officials and analysts say Mr. Kim will be far less likely to abandon his nuclear and missile programs if the U.S. pulls out of the 2015 multilateral agreement meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear programs in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.
Mr. Kim plans a one-on-one summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 and is set to meet Mr. Trump next month or in early June at a still-to-be-determined location. The Trump administration has said the goal of the high-risk meeting will be to get the North to agree to eventually give up its nuclear programs.
But the prospect of a U.S. pullout from the Iran deal casts a shadow over the talks.
“It will have a very negative influence on North Korea’s decision of whether or not to come out with a strong denuclearization statement or to make any serious concessions during a summit with President Trump,” said Paik Hak-soon, a top North Korea analyst with the Sejong Institute think tank in the South.
The Iran agreement and the Korean Peninsula talks “are quite closely connected in the perception of the North Korean leadership,” Mr. Paik said in an interview. “Trashing the Iran deal will have a very souring effect.”
Many here see Mr. Trump’s appointment of John R. Bolton as his national security adviser, a sharp critic of the Obama administration’s Iran deal and a past proponent of regime change in Iran, as an indication that Washington is bent on pulling fully out of the accord.
Under the Iran deal’s terms, U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France gave billions of dollars in sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for sharp curbs and intrusive inspections of Tehran’s nuclear programs.
Other signatories to the deal say they want to preserve it, but Iranian officials have said they will not be bound by the nuclear restrictions if the U.S. says it no longer is part of the agreement.
Mr. Trump decertified the Iran deal as in the U.S. national interest in October — a mainly rhetorical step that sets the stage for a full withdrawal. Critics of the agreement say Iran has violated the letter and the spirit of the deal by testing a string of long-range ballistic missiles and continuing to threaten Israel and U.S. Sunni Arab allies in the region through a network of proxy forces such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The president has issued an ultimatum to Britain, France and Germany. If they don’t join Washington in fixing “terrible flaws” in the deal, Mr. Trump said, he will move to unilaterally reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran by May 12, the next deadline for him to renew sanctions relief that Washington has been giving Iran for the past three years. There has been little indication of progress on a revised deal with exactly a month to go.
State Department Policy Planning Director Brian Hook told reporters last month that the goal is to get the Europeans to agree to collective new sanctions against Iran if it tests long-range missiles or evades inspections of its remaining nuclear facilities.
Echoes across Asia
But the Iran debate is having clear echoes on the other side of Asia as Mr. Trump pursues his “deal on the de-nuking of North Korea.”
“I see a very close correlation with the Iran agreement, and I am concerned that if the agreement is not [upheld], it will have an impact on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” said retired South Korean Army Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum, an analyst on the North Korean threat.
“It’s going to make the negotiations between the United States and North Korea more difficult,” said Jun Bong-geun, the head of security and unification studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. “North Korea may want more assurances from Washington, and they may want to hide more.
“It might send a message that if changing administrations can change a deal, what does that mean for [Pyongyang]? It will probably make it harder for the North Koreans to trust a deal with the U.S.,” Gen. Chun said in an interview.
The Moon government has remained mum on the Iran issue, but one former official told The Times that there “definitely is concern” inside the administration.
Given the skepticism Mr. Trump and his advisers have about Iran’s compliance, the bar may be even higher for Mr. Kim. U.S. security officials say North Korea has routinely violated international accords meant to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons and the missiles to hit the U.S. and its East Asian allies.
The Trump administration has indicated that denuclearization — not just a declaration by Pyongyang but verifiable abandonment of the nuclear program — is a precondition for negotiations toward lifting sanctions on North Korea.
Uncertainty looms, however, over the administration’s game plan for the Trump-Kim summit.
Just days after he was appointed as national security adviser last month, Mr. Bolton told Radio Free Asia that the administration should follow the “Libyan Model” with North Korea. The George W. Bush administration struck a relatively quick deal in December 2003 with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to give up his nuclear materials in exchange for sanctions relief and the promise of normalized relations with the West.
But South Korean sources say the mention of Libya likely angered Pyongyang, which has long pointed to Gadhafi’s death at the hands of U.S.-backed rebels during the 2011 Arab Spring as an example of why a smaller state should never surrender its nuclear arsenal.
“We all know the Gadhafi case is something the North Koreans point to repeatedly to demonstrate that their behavior will not be decided by anybody, let alone by the United States, the way Gadhafi’s was,” said Mr. Paik. “And I think you can compare the collapse of the Iran deal, if America pulls out of it, to the Gadhafi case.”
If Mr. Trump keeps the U.S. in the Iran deal, however, “the North Koreans could more comfortably come to the table with the United States.”
“Bolton clearly has a very narrow view of the Libya case,” said the former official, who spoke on background with The Times, arguing that the U.S.-Libya detente in 2006 depended heavily on the involvement of Britain as an intermediary and that no such intermediary exists vis-a-vis the potential U.S.-North Korean negotiations.
The uncertainty, many here say, means that the fate of any Trump-Kim summit will depend heavily on what comes from a summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon.
Mr. Paik believes one of Mr. Moon’s goals may be to get such a statement from Mr. Kim on denuclearization. At a minimum, he said, Mr. Moon is “trying to persuade Kim Jong-un with maximum effort to keep his commitment to denuclearize when he comes to the U.S.-North Korea summit talks.”