SEOUL—President Donald Trump’s decision to jettison the Iran nuclear deal sends one message loud and clear to the Korean Peninsula: He’s likely to stay tough in his insistence on North Korea getting rid of its nuclear program.
The two cases, to be sure, are quite different—Iran has yet to fabricate any nuclear warheads, while North Korea is believed to have produced between 40 and 60 of them at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. Nonetheless, Trump’s message that the U.S. will not be held “hostage” to a nuclear-armed Iran evokes memories of his threat at the United Nations last year to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if the North persisted in aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at the U.S.
South Korean foreign ministry officials, aware in advance of Trump’s decision on Iran, mingled optimism with a certain foreboding in discussing the implications for the summit that Trump is to have with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. The general view, one official told me, was that the Iran decision means Trump will stick to his guns on CVID—complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization—whenever he meets Kim.
The realization that Trump needs to see North Korea dismantling its nukes, however, does not seem to be raising doubts as to whether Kim will go through with the summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way back from his second trip to Pyongyang on Wednesday, after not only clarifying details for the summit but also making clear Trump will not relent in his demand for denuclearization.
The North Koreans, Pompeo suggested in remarks on his plane to Pyongyang, could vastly improve the atmosphere by freeing three U.S. citizens, all Korean Americans held on unspecified charges of espionage. It would be “a great gesture,” he said on the way over, if the North Koreans let them go during his visit.
And indeed, they did exactly that near the end of a long day that ended with Trump tweeting that Pompeo was “in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen,” who, he said, “seem to be in good health.”
It’s not yet known exactly what they had done, but the longest held, Kim Dong-chul, 64, had been charged in October 2015 with “spying” for South Korean intelligence agencies and “spreading religious ideas.” The other two, Tony Kim, 59, and Kim Hak-song, had been arrested two weeks apart in April of last year at the Pyongyang airport as they were leaving after completing brief stints at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private university based in the Chinese city of Yanji, run by a devout Korean Christian. Both were charged with unspecified “criminal” and “hostile” acts.
The release was greeted with relief and joy by South Korea’s leadership, who saw it as evidence that Trump and Kim would bury differences and come to terms when they meet. “We welcome North Korea’s decision,” said Yoon Young-chan, President Moon Jae-in’s press secretary, saying it had “a significant meaning in that all three American captives are Korean descendants.”
Clearly, Kim had decided before Pompeo got to Pyongyang to put on a show of goodwill and understanding. Trump said Pompeo and Kim had had “a good meeting”—though what they said to one another about the critical issue of denuclearization was left unclear.
Pompeo may not have told the North Koreans exactly what Trump might say to Kim at the summit, but Trump’s decision on Iran presumably came up over the course of several hours in Pyongyang, including another meeting with Kim, whom he had seen in his earlier trip at the beginning of April. One obvious inference from Trump’s denunciation of the Iranian program is that he won’t be happy with “freeze for freeze”—that is, North Korea’s pledge not to test nukes and long-range missiles while the U.S. and South Korea forswear military exercises.
En route to Pyongyang, Pompeo gave a clue as to the firmness that Trump will display, indicating the president places the same priority on enforcing sanctions against North Korea as he does against Iran.
“We are not going to do this in small increments where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure,” he told reporters. “That won’t lead to the outcome that I know Kim Jong Un wants and I know President Trump is demanding.” Rather, “We’re hoping to set out that set of conditions that will give them this opportunity to have a historic, big change in the security relationship between North Korea and the United States”—meaning “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
By this logic, Trump would not be open to scaling down in Korea simply on the understanding the North was also reducing its nuclear stockpile, although he’s said South Korea should pay a far higher price for the defense provided by the United States. Amid contentious talks between U.S. and South Korean officials on “burden-sharing,” U.S. officials have denied Trump may want to withdraw some of the 28,500 U.S. troops from Korea in tandem with denuclearization.
South Korean officials are hopeful that Trump and Kim will manage to come out with a “joint declaration” committing North Korea to denuclearization even if it offers few if any real details on how to go about it. Such a declaration is seen as a vital follow-up to the one signed on April 27 at Panmunjom by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Kim at which those two agreed to work toward “complete denuclearization” but did not specify how, when or where, much less mention inspections the Americans will insist on.
U.S. and South Korean officials worry, however, that North Korea’s close ties with Iran on exchanges of nuclear technology and sales of North Korean missiles may convince Kim of the need to get just as tough as the Iranians in responding to what they are likely to see as Trump’s betrayal of the carefully wrought Iran nuclear deal.
There is no doubt that Trump’s decision comes as a shock to the North Koreans. Both North Korea and Iran acquired expertise, technology and advice from the infamous Pakistani nuclear physicist “A.Q. Khan,” Abdul Qadeer Khan,“father” of his country’s nuclear bomb, who reaped a fortune in payoffs from both of them. And North Korea’s relations with Iran go deep.
Iranian engineers and technicians have been present at North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, according to Bruce Bechtol, author of a number of books on North Korea’s military build-up. North Korean engineers have also advised Iranians on building Scud and Rodong missile variants and provided the technology from the North’s long-range Taepodong for Iranian models, said Bechtol. Moreover, according to Bechtol, North Korean engineers have used their skills at tunnel-building to construct underground facilities in which Iran produces centrifuges for nuclear devices powered by enriched uranium.
In Pyongyang, Pompeo may be expected to suggest that North Koreans stop such activities, holding up Trump’s decision on Iran to show that the American president means business when it comes to dealing with North Korea as well.