Trump’s Iran Nuke Deal Decision Could Impact North Korea Summit, Says US Senator Markey

US President Donald J. Trump’s decision on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal will be an important factor in determining the outcome of his highly anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a Democratic US senator said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on May 4.

Pulling the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, would be a “huge mistake if [Trump] expects to have credibility when he sits at the table with Kim,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA). “We must uphold our deals,” he added.

Trump has described the JCPOA, struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, Germany, and Iran in 2015, as a bad deal.

Meanwhile, after a tumultuous year of nuclear tests, escalatory rhetoric, and escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, Trump is expected to meet Kim in the coming weeks, though neither date nor location have been confirmed. According to Trump, however, they are decided and will be announced soon. In their historic summit, the two leaders will discuss North Korean denuclearization.

However, before that meeting takes place, Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide whether to extend a sanctions waiver on Iran. A failure to do so could effectively pull the United States out of the multilateral nuclear deal.

Markey cautioned that walking away from one nuclear deal while working to forge another could hinder Trump’s ability to strike a deal with Kim, a leader already wary of what may happen should he relinquish his nuclear weapons. “The United States must have credibility,” he said.

Markey delivered his keynote address as part of the Atlantic Council’s newly established strategic dialogue with the East Asia Foundation.

Discussing the need for a roadmap to North Korean denuclearization, Markey insisted on the necessity of a diplomatic solution. “This threat is real, but it cannot be solved with force,” he said.

“There is only a diplomatic solution to this issue,” said Markey, adding, “there is no military resolution that would not turn catastrophic very quickly.”

In the wake of a successful meeting between North and South Korean leaders on April 27, and looking ahead to the US-North Korean summit, Markey outlined a list of do’s and don’ts for the US administration as it prepares. He based his advice on the belief that “diplomacy, backed by pressure, is the only way to solve the crisis.”

First, he said, “Do focus on the threat at hand: North Korea’s nuclear warheads and the [intercontinental ballistic missiles] that carry them.” Late last year, Pyongyang developed missiles that could reach the US homeland. While many may walk into the Trump-Kim summit eager to grasp “any win,” said Markey, “we cannot afford to be sidetracked, to lose sight of what is really America’s ultimate security goals.”

He emphasized the three necessary deliverables that should come from the meeting: specification of what North Korean denuclearization means, a timeline to achieve that end which is agreed upon by all parties, and a concrete verification process.

In light of these considerations, Markey cautioned, “Don’t fall for North Korea’s theatrics” and attempts to distract the delegation from its mission. The United States has entered into many nuclear agreements with North Korea in the past, yet each ultimately failed when Pyongyang reneged on its commitments. “The question is whether or not these efforts will be different from past efforts,” said Markey, asking: “Is Kim different from his father… or is he using the same playbook?”

To increase chances of success on the peninsula, “Do stay in lockstep with our ally South Korea,” said Markey. Though Beijing has supported US sanctions on North Korea, and Kim had a successful meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the United States must maintain close coordination with its allies in the region. “North Korea and China stand to benefit from driving a wedge between the United States and its allies,” warned Markey.

In order to maintain key alliances, it is essential that administration officials “don’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” said Markey. The United States maintains alliances in the region to act as a stabilizing force, and protection for countries threatened by Pyongyang’s nuclear program. In particular, the senator said, US troops stationed in South Korea serve as a physical reminder of a US commitment to defend its allies.

However, ahead of the summit with Kim, Trump on May 4 ordered the Pentagon to look into the possibility of reducing the US military presence in South Korea. Markey cautioned against such a measure. “The United States is committed to defending South Korea, and we must ensure that the capabilities to do that are maintained,” he said.

On May 4, shortly after Markey’s speech, Trump walked back his comments from the day before, saying that US troop withdrawal from South Korea is not on the table—for now.

However, said Markey, a military presence on the Korean Peninsula is insufficient on its own. “Do build American diplomatic capability and infrastructure,” he urged the administration. The US Department of State currently does not have a US special envoy or representative for North Korea policy, an ambassador to South Korea, a sanctions coordinator, or an undersecretary for East Asia. “Going into presidential talks without a fully staffed State Department means there are… fewer people holding North Korea accountable moving forward,” said Markey.

Though Trump prides himself on his ability to broker a deal, “don’t succumb to the illusion that it is possible to strike a grand bargain that solves the problem overnight,” cautioned Markey. The summit between the two leaders should focus not on the negotiation of details, but finding common ground and assurances that they will move forward on the path to denuclearization. “It is essential that we view this as the beginning of what will and must necessarily be a very long process,” said Markey.

According to Markey, “a phased approach that will play out over time is the only way all sides will overcome the trust deficit forged by war and hardened by decades of hostility.”

Ultimately, he said, the stakes are high, and neither Washington nor Pyongyang has much choice in how to proceed. “We’re either going to know each other, or we’re going to exterminate each other. We’re going to live together, or we’re going to die together. Those are the choices,” said Markey.

Rachel Ansley is assistant director of editorial content at the Atlantic Council.

Image: “We’re either going to know each other, or we’re going to exterminate each other. We’re going to live together, or we’re going to die together. Those are the choices,” said US Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) at the Atlantic Council on May 4. (Image Link)