The Korean press today is filled with analysis of how the Iran deal could affect North Korea policy. China, which has long sought what would amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, thinks the Iran deal is a swell model for a deal with North Korea, which almost certainly means that China sees the Iran deal as a capitulation. State itself is saying it’s ready for “authentic, credible” negotiations with Pyongyang, although State’s operational definitions of “authentic” and “credible” leave much to the imagination. The Chosun Ilbo thinks the deal increases pressure on North Korea to make a deal. Some of the Daily NK’s experts see the Iran deal as a potential model, while others see it as a potential incentive to press on with its nuclear programs. Yonhap publishes a balanced and diverse selection of views from safe pro-engagement establishment scholars, who conclude that the Iran deal won’t have much effect at all.
My view is actually closer to the last of these views, and here’s why.
1. The President is running out of time and influence. Even in the diplomatic arena, presidents’ power and time are limited as their terms end. The Cuba opening cost President Obama much support within both parties, particularly among the powerful Cuban-American delegation and its allies. The Iran deal now pits the President against Israel’s many powerful friends on the Hill. At a time when the Republicans have strong majorities in both houses of Congress, and when the President is already leading his party into a presidential election while saddling it with an image of weakness and unilateral conciliation, a deal with an unrepentant and aggressive North Korea, just months after Kim Jong-Un’s cyberattacks and terrorist threats against The Interview, strains political plausibility.
2. The Iran deal will exhaust most of that time and influence. One immediate effect of the Iran deal will be that Congress will now be absorbed with Iran for the next three months, both before and after the August recess. For two months after that, it will be absorbed with whatever it didn’t deal with when it was dealing with Iran. After that, it may have a chance to turn to North Korea, if North Korea is still a high enough priority. In the short term, then, the Iran deal is probably a temporary setback for any North Korea legislation, but in the long term, it dims the prospects for a deal with North Korea. The Iran debate will consume the administration’s energy and credibility in Congress, and will restrain the President from fighting Congress on North Korea while conserving his energy to hold an Iran deal together. Even congressional supporters of the Iran deal will want to portray themselves as tough-minded. North Korea is an excellent vehicle for that, and the number of Democratic co-sponsors for H.R. 1771 is the best empirical measure of this incentive. That tendency will help help cement a centrist, bi-partisan majority around a tougher policy going into the next administration.
3. North Korea wants money, but Congress won’t pay. Congress has less power to obstruct diplomatic agreements than domestic policy initiatives, which invariably require Congress to pass legislation and appropriate funds. Yes, the Senate must ratify a treaty, but one-off deals with dictators are almost never written as treaties. Congress can refuse to appropriate funds for a deal, and has repeatedly passed amendments restricting the delivery of funds to North Korea, but that doesn’t stop State from asking allies to pay instead. Thus, Congress can seldom block a deal outright without a Senate supermajority. In the case of Iran, there is an important difference — Congress has already passed a series of sanctions statutes that the President can’t lift unilaterally without some kind of built-in authority for that (as with sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act).
4. The Optics of the Iran-North Korea Analogy. Opponents of the Iran deal frequently cite the 1994 Agreed Framework with Pyongyang as an example of a bad agreement that doesn’t prevent proliferation, but facilitates it. The administration denies the comparison. (If Republicans were completely honest here, they’d admit that George W. Bush’s 2007 deal was worse than either the Iran deal or the 1994 deal, in that it lifted sanctions before North Korea even began to perform.) The last thing the President needs now is another Agreed Framework with North Korea to validate that analogy and remind us that the same person — Wendy Sherman — was a key player in negotiating both deals.
5. North Korea isn’t buying what we’re selling. All of the above assumes North Korea would take a disarmament deal, or even a freeze deal. Based on what North Korea has been saying recently, however, that probably assumes too much:
Rodong Sinmun Slams U.S. Mandarins’ Reckless Remarks on DPRK’s Nukes
Pyongyang, May 20 (KCNA) — The U.S. ambassador to south Korea was recently reported to have said as regards the denuclearization that if north Korea takes landmark measures, it can improve its relations with the U.S. and head for “peace and prosperity”. [….]
The U.S. is foolishly seeking to denuclearize and stifle the DPRK. However, the U.S. would be well advised to clearly know that the DPRK is neither Iraq nor Libya.
The DPRK would like to declare once again that its nuclear force serves as the nation’s treasure which can never be abandoned nor be bartered for anything as long as there are imperialists on the globe and nuclear threat to the DPRK persists.
Peace and prosperity depends on bolstering up the nuclear force. Neither pressure nor blackmail nor appeasement can ever stop the DPRK from dynamically advancing, pursuant to the line of simultaneously developing the two fronts. -0-
DPRK Will Continue Developing Powerful Deterrence for Self-Defence: Minju Joson (2015.05.17)
Pyongyang, May 17 (KCNA) — The south Korean puppet groups is pulling up the DPRK over its recent underwater test-fire of ballistic missile from a strategic submarine, terming it a “violation of UNSC resolution” and “serious challenge”. [….]
Explicitly speaking, the DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence serves as the almighty treasured sword greatly contributing to peace and security not only on the Korean peninsula but in Northeast Asia.
A particular mention should be made of the fact that it is irrefutable that if the ballistic missiles from strategic submarines are to go on a serial production and be deployed in a near future, peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia will be consolidated so much. [….]
6. A deal with North Korea isn’t a legacy-maker. It’s a well-established pattern that lame-duck Presidents grasp for “accomplishments” abroad as their power wanes at home. There’s no better president to negotiate with than one who knows he’ll be safely ensconced in his presidential library by the time the deal falls apart. North Korea’s track record tells us it will cheat, and when it does, the next president will come under strong pressure to walk away. I suspect that the administration has been involved in secret talks with North Korea periodically, but there’s usually at least some warning before a deal is announced. I first got wind of Chris Hill closing a deal with the North Koreans in Berlin in late 2006, and the deal was announced the following February. But then, how often do you hear George W. Bush boast about Agreed Framework 2? And even assuming this were possible, how long would it last under a future president? Probably not much longer than the Leap Day Deal itself. That’s a pretty dubious foundation for a legacy.
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Update: So on the one hand, Wendy Sherman, who wrote the North Korea deal that Iran learned from, now wants North Korea to learn from the Iran deal. As Kevin Kim says:
— Kevin Kim (@bighominid) July 17, 2015
On the other hand, Ambassador Lippert confirms that the North Koreans don’t sound interested in any deal we’d offer:
“But I think the key difference between those three cases and North Korea is the lack of interest in coming to the table and talking seriously about denuclearization and rolling back its missile programs,” the U.S. envoy said in a speech given to a meeting of Seoul National University alumni in Seoul.
The communist country has so far only rejected the U.S.’ signal for dialogue, refusing to return to the six-party denuclearization talks or inter-Korean talks, canceling leader Kim Jong-un’s trip to Moscow and aggravating its relations with China, he said.
“We were met with more silence and unwillingness to come back to the table (from North Korea),” Lippert noted.
The U.S. policy is built on principled diplomacy, “not appeasement,” and the U.S. will continue to effectuate the harder-line approach until the North has seriousness of purpose, he said. [….]
“Our principal hope is that North Koreans will agree to come back to the table … we are less concerned about the platform or less concerned about the process,” according to Lippert. “We are interested in coming back to the table and exercising the principled diplomacy to roll back and get back to serious, incredible and authentic negotiations toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” [Yonhap]