The JCPOA, also known as the “Iran Deal,” recently died a well-deserved death as an instrument of American policy due to the weaknesses built into it by the negotiating teams. Iran got most of what they wanted up front, including pallets of cash that enabled their irregular war efforts. The deal did nothing to restrain Iran from building out its missile program in anticipation of the sunset of the deal’s nuclear research controls. Europe was bribed by business opportunities in Iran to reinforce an interest in keeping the deal intact. This made it difficult to punish Iranian violations, even when they could be proven. But the deal also made it difficult to prove violations by vesting inspection authority in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which accepted Iran’s refusal to turn over historical documents (such as the ones Israel later recovered, proving Iran’s nuclear program was always intended for military purposes). The IAEA also refused to request tests, just because such tests might have given American authorities reason to leave the deal.
The deal was, in short, badly crafted. Its demise comes just as the United States is considering a new approach with North Korea aimed at similarly preventing its development and use of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s history of pursuing those weapons goes back to the 1950s, and is a core part of their regime survival strategy. A better approach is needed than any that has gone before. The purpose of this piece is to lay out some principles around which an effective and enforceable deal can be made.
Benefits Up Front, But The Right Benefits
The Iran deal provided their regime with lots of fungible cash, which could be used immediately to fund bad behavior. Kim will certainly try to obtain immediate concessions in return for dubious promises. One approach to avoiding this mistake might be to refuse benefits until after the regime has met certain targets. However, the better approach is to ensure that there are immediate benefits to engaging the process – benefits that will make it hard for the regime to walk away.
Secretary of State Pompeo has correctly identified the benefits that America should use as its negotiating anchor: food and medicine. North Korea’s population is long-starving, riven by parasites, and deep in the grip of totalitarian propaganda claiming that the United States desires its end. The suffering of the people is justified, in the propaganda, by the claim that only in this way can the divine Kim dynasty survive American efforts to destroy it. People tend to value that for which they have suffered, so perversely the regime’s very denial of basic food and sanitation have hardened the population to the idea of dealing with America.
Removing the suffering of the people is thus something that America should move to do as quickly as possible, conditioned simply on Kim’s continued participation in a process that aims eventually at denuclearization. Pompeo’s statement promises the North Korean people that they will get to eat meat. That this will sound to the people of North Korea like an extravagant promise shows how severe their lives have been under Kim’s rule. But it is a very achievable promise for America to keep. America should keep this promise, literally branding the meat we send with Korean-language messages of peace and friendship. “From your friends in America: eat and grow strong for peace.”
America can also provide treatment for parasites via medical teams. The North Korean population’s first encounter with Americans can then be not with soldiers, but with people who come to relieve their suffering. The experience of eating full meals for the first time in their lives, and of not having tapeworms and similar parasites, that experience will convince the people of the wisdom of this new path.
That conviction will, in turn, reinforce our efforts at negotiation. The Kim regime may find that it is too dangerous to walk away from the deal once their populace is stronger, better-fed, and removed from the grip of psychological conditioning through suffering. The people are going to like eating meat. They are going to like not being sick. It’s going to be very hard to walk them back to suffering once they’ve seen what it’s like to be healthy and full.
Trust Americans to Verify
The United States must learn from the perfidy of the IAEA, which betrayed its basic purpose by refusing to carry out the inspections it was responsible to undertake. Other nations who are negotiating partners may be allies, but only American inspectors are reliable.
Tehran was allowed by the Iran Deal to collect its own samples for IAEA inspection. That allows for obvious cheating, and is another reason to believe that the Iran Deal was a fraud from the beginning. That the IAEA would accept these terms shows that it was a willing accomplice in allowing itself to be used by the regime. We cannot afford to trust such a ‘partner’ with verification. We certainly cannot trust North Korea to inspect itself.
Of the other likely partner nations, Russia and China are also unreliable. They have both been assisting the North Korean regime in dodging sanctions and nuclear research limits for years. South Korea is more reliable, but its current government has strong confirmation bias in wanting to see the deal work. Even the best scientists and thinkers are subject to this bias. South Korean experts are certainly welcome to perform parallel inspections, but they will benefit from having disinterested American experts – and we should insist upon having our experts there.
Japan, the other regional partner likely to want to send experts, is problematic for other reasons. They are not likely to be subject to confirmation bias in favor of the Kim regime. They also have a strong interest in ensuring an absence of nuclear weapons from North Korea’s arsenal. However, the history of colonization by Japan of the Korean peninsula makes them an unlikely choice for a trusted third party in these negotiations.
American inspectors should always be our principle. We should likewise adopt the principle that Americans must oversee the dismantling process of any existing North Korean nuclear infrastructure. North Korea is planning a ‘good faith’ gesture of dismantling their nuclear test site. This is a half measure at best given the collapse of the site due to the nuclear tests themselves or subsequent earthquakes. Although this is intended as a show of good faith, it also means that they will get to destroy key evidence that would help American inspectors understand how they have proceeded in the quest for a nuclear weapon – and how far they had gotten. Our diplomats should always insist on American verification of every step.
Keep Your Weapons Handy
Our basic goal for these negotiations is peace, but we should be very slow to lay down American arms. These negotiations have been made possible by American strength, and the presence of American strength is the only hope for keeping them on track. We should not agree to withdraw American forces from Korea unless full denuclearization is actually achieved, and perhaps not even then. It may be wise to stay until an agreeable political process of Korean unification is stable and leading to positive results.
Currently the Kim regime is suggesting that it may not even ask for American withdrawal from Korea, which would be a welcome sign. On the other hand, Kim has threatened to derail negotiations in an attempt to get America to back off the deployment of what he considers “strategic” (i.e., potentially nuclear) airframes. In the past they have asked for various levels of American relaxation of our military posture, especially an end to combined military exercises with South Korea. Needless to say, this should be off the table until and unless full denuclearization is achieved.
Some have worried that the Trump administration might accept partial denuclearization, based on an early statement that we aim at an end to North Korean nuclear work ‘that poses a threat’ to the United States. As research backed by the House of Representatives oversight panel has shown, however, any nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea pose a threat to the United States. There is room for argument about the scale of the threat, but even a primitive nuclear weapon poses at least a significant threat to American society. Full denuclearization is the only way to ensure America’s safety.
Give the Kim Regime a Way Out
If our basic goal is peace, the Kim regime’s basic goal is regime survival. It is unlikely that they will agree to anything that does not leave them in power, with the hope of eventually reunifying the Koreas under northern leadership. However, it would be a good principle to always leave the option open in case circumstances convince them to change their minds.
The Kim regime has committed horrible atrocities against its own people. Part of their dogged clinging to power is out of personal fear of retribution should the people escape their grasp. Partly they have kept their population impoverished and sick in order to make them easier to control. Increasing prosperity may make the population seem like a caged wolf, long-starved but now growing healthy and ferocious. There is just a chance that, as the population’s fate improves, leaders of the Kim regime may start looking for an exit.
It would be wise to offer a standing promise of full pardons and sanctuary in America or another first world nation they name, as well as substantial personal wealth and new identities, should the regime elect to stand down. The offer should be for Kim (or his successor) and any few hundred people he might designate, conditional on their surrendering control of the state to South Korean authorities.
Ultimately fear may do our work for us, if we make sure they feel they can trust the exit we provide. That would be the best thing for everyone, even if it means that the Kim regime never answers for its many acts of abuse and atrocity. If they will leave, we will obtain for a few million dollars what we might otherwise have to fight a major war to achieve.
There are probably other lessons from the failure of the Iran Deal that apply, such as making sure that the final deal addresses missiles as well as warhead development. It is worth studying the failed deal in order to think about what a successful one might look like. The above principles seem likely to produce something the United States and our allies really could live with, as well as a better future for the Korean people. Such a future is devoutly to be hoped, especially for the north where suffering has been harsh for generations. Strong American leadership, aimed at peace but retaining its sword, can help the Koreas to find their way to such a happy future.