Patrick M. Cronin, Sarah Donilon
North Korean diplomacy, even if it proves to be theater with no substance, sets the United States up in a stronger position and may yield a breakthrough.
American presidents have long found double-trouble in managing Iran and North Korea. The two countries are separated by four thousand miles and starkly different histories, but they share similarly antagonistic relationships with the United States, made only more tense by nuclear threats. For U.S. decisionmakers, North Korea and Iran pose the same broad foreign-policy challenge: how to manage down the risks with acceptable concessions.
In the span of a month, President Donald Trump faces crucial opportunities to respond to this challenge with both countries, first in his Iran nuclear-deal decision earlier this month and then in his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un on June 12. So far, Trump’s penchant for throwing away convention shows promise for one of these cases (North Korea) but portends disaster for the other (Iran).
Trump explicitly connected his recent decision to pull out of the Iran deal to his upcoming meeting with Kim. Exiting the “disastrous” Iran deal, Trump declared at the White House, “sends a critical message”—that “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” Trump was quick to add that the decision also spoke to his own character: “When I make promises, I keep them,” he said. “In fact, at this very moment, Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. . . . Hopefully, a deal will happen, and with the help of China, South Korea, and Japan, a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone.”
While Trump referenced Asian allies and partners—China, Japan and South Korea—that have worked with him to open up diplomacy with North Korea, he isolated European allies on his Iran decision. Following this announcement, the leaders of France, Germany, and the UK issued a joint statement that directly contradicted Trump, insisting that the Iran nuclear accord “remains the binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute about the Iranian nuclear programme.”