Foreign Affairs and International Relations

Little Boy Meets the Fat Man

Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya

Does scrapping the Iran deal cast a shadow?

Iran NK

On June 12, President Trump will meet the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un in Singapore, to negotiate the terms of de-nuclearisation, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. This meeting marks a watershed moment in the diplomatic effort to engage with North Korea, and has the ability to be a potential game-changer as far as stability in the Korean peninsula is concerned.

On May 8, USA withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). More popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, this agreement had imposed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions on the nation. Commentators have expressed grave concerns as to whether this withdrawal by Trump is really in the best interest of the US (or the middle-east, for that matter). Leaving aside the question of (de)merits of the withdrawal itself, it is important to consider whether this action by the Trump administration will have any impact on the June 12 meeting with Kim. I will argue the negative, i.e., scrapping the Iran nuclear deal does not affect Korean peace talks to a great extent. To support this claim, I shall present two arguments: first, Iran and Korea are two very different parties, and second, that the ‘distrust’ argument is unfounded.

Korea and Iran are two very different parties

While analysing the effect that USA’s exit from the JCPoA will have on USA’s negotiation with Korea, the following key differences between the two parties, Iran and N. Korea, cannot be ignored:

  1. Korea and Iran’s nuclear capabilities are vastly different – The former possesses nuclear warheads, and missiles capable of carrying such warheads over vast distances. It has threatened nuclear attacks not only against its neighbours but against USA as well. On the other hand, Iran does not have any nuclear warheads, as it has not yet managed to produce weapons-grade uranium, which requires 90% enrichment. This means that the fallout of failing to negotiate a deal with N. Korea is much higher than the same scenario in Iran. It will be more difficult for USA to walk away from a Korean peace agreement.
  2. The nature of the negotiation is different – As far as Iran is concerned, it was apparent that the Obama administration had strong-armed it into sitting at the negotiating table by using the threat of extended sanctions. In the case of N. Korea, however, although sanctions are a factor, Kim has himself played a more proactive role in coming to the table. He has tried hard to project the impression that he is equally responsible for initiating the dialogue of de-escalation between N. Korea and USA.
  3. The regional policy in the Korean peninsula is far more consistent than in the middle-east – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been unabashedly opposed to any kind of US-Iran agreement and has detracted the JCPoA since its very inception. On the other hand, South Korean President Moon has been actively trying to bring N. Korea and USA to the negotiating table. Bringing peace to the Korean peninsula is clearly a top priority for him. Unlike Iran and Israel’s opposing agendas, the two Koreas are (at least on a prima facie basis) united in ensuring de-escalation of hostilities. This makes it easier for Kim to negotiate a more favourable deal. American disengagement from Korean peace talks will not be looked upon favourably by the regional players (China, Japan, Russia, and S. Korea)., some of whom are key American allies. Owing to the absence of a united regional policy and Israel’s active opposition, Iran did not have this luxury.

The ‘distrust’ argument is unfounded

The argument that Trump’s exit from the Iran deal foments distrust between N. Korea and USA does not have too much merit. A lack of trust has always dominated diplomatic engagement between USA and N. Korea. Trump walking away from the Iran deal does not exacerbate this to a great extent.

  1. N. Korea is no stranger to the volatility in US decision-making – In 2002, Bush abandoned the arms control agreement with N. Korea, brokered by the Clinton administration in 1994. According to the NY Times, Bush was ‘deeply suspicious of the usefulness of the accord’ when he took office, which is uncannily similar to Trump’s sentiments towards the JCPoA. This means that scrapping the Iran deal will not shock N. Korea so much as it will reaffirm his belief that US Administration cannot be trusted.
  2. USA’s exit from the Iran deal was not unexpected – When Trump walked out of the JCPoA, Kim could not have been too surprised. In addition to abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, scrapping the JCPoA was one of Trump’s primary campaign promises. Trump withdrew from the TPP in January 2017, and from the Paris Agreement in August. If these withdrawals were anything to go by, USA’s exit from the Iran deal was not too hard to predict. Despite this, Kim invited Trump for negotiations on DPRK’s nuclear program. In fact, in March 2018, NY Times reported that Kim was eager to meet Trump as soon as possible. Thus, given the willingness to engage that Kim has displayed over the last few months, it is highly unlikely that USA’s Iran policy will cast a major shadow over Trump’s negotiation with Kim.


For the above reasons, it is safe to conclude that USA’s withdrawal from the JCPoA is unlikely to have a major impact on Trump’s meeting with Kim in June. Although the two events are not entirely distinct, it cannot be argued that scrapping the JCPoA reduces the possibility of a favourable outcome in the Korean peninsula.

7 replies »

  1. I fully agree with view shared in the blog. However IMO the N. Korean deal has China factor. In case of Iran there is no such factor forcing US to sit on a negotiation table.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sakti!
      Yes, we are in full agreement with your view. China is indeed a key regional player as far as the Korean peace talks are concerned. In fact, Xi Jinping has been holding regular meetings with Kim in the period leading up to the latter’s meeting with Trump. They have met as recently as last week in Dalian, China. Both leaders have repeatedly emphasized how committed they are to bringing peace to the Korean peninsula.
      It must be noted, however, that China’s diplomatic proximity with N. Korea should be viewed with a general air of suspicion, owing to their deep-seated desire to attain regional supremacy. It will be interesting to see how the Chinese Government will react if de-escalation and de-nuclearisation become part of a new material reality in the Korean peninsula.

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  2. Aditya, I appreciate your writing on 12th June meeting between Trump and Kim and how it will effect the complex relationship between Iran, N Korea and US. Your analysis about a complex international relationships is praiseworthy and also it enriched me. Good writing. Keep it up.

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  3. When US signed the Iran Nuke deal the CEO of Marilyn the arm manufacturer was asked whether with the deescalation of tension the arms sale in this region will go down . In reply CEO said continuing volatility in Middle East and Asia would make new growth areas .US is by far the largest supplier of arms( 56% of global supply) and between 2008-2016 it has entered arms sales agreement worth USD 265 billion. The Defence security cooperation agency which is just the middle man to supply arms helping friendly (!)nations to buy peace by making them feel secured with armament.
    It makes a great sense to continue with the lions share of the arms market .
    Abraham Lincoln had said that best way to destroy your enemy is to make him a friend and i guess in modern times mostly by selling arms ( Best Middle East friend Saudi is highest buyer, second is India ).But in politics they say there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Many global destruction are at times attributed to the political and econmic interest of great powers. However weaker the enemy greater is the chance of sanction. Iran catapulted and devoid of much outside support and also being in the infancy of neuclear development is lesser evil than the developed Korea with tacit support from super powers.
    It is agreeable that the Iran issue is not going to be deterrent or impactful for the Korean deal because the trust worthiness of successive government or during the same government has not only been breached in this case but more routinely than expected over periods .But it remains to be seen whether this event can be called a watershed moment to diffuse the tension. Think of poor Lockheed Martin, Boeing , General Dynamics . Great blog by Aditya .

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  4. I agree with the views expressed. But one thing is for sure, if China is not taken into confidence, US alone will not be able to solve the nuclear of North Korea. Even, in case of Iran, China it seems is playing it’s game.

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  5. The subject matter is extremely important for the world peace; the writer of the article is well informed of the current events and world politics. Good job!!!!!
    I think President Trump is handling the NoKo issue very well. However, it may take a number of years to achieve a peaceful resolution.
    (Note: Initially I was a bit confused about the title of the article. I understand that the Little Boy ….. refers to Manhattan Project and not any thing else.)