Abort the Iran Nuclear Deal and Increase the North Korean Nuclear Threat to the US

by Robert Hunter

US failure to implement fully the nuclear deal with Iran, perhaps even abrogating it while also continuing to isolate the country internationally, guarantees further erosion of Washington’s already slim diplomatic opportunity to forestall North Korea’s pursuit of a capacity to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Even though Iran and North Korea are 4,000 miles apart and seem in Washington to be in different policy universes, they are in fact closely linked.

This is a high price for the US to pay to respond to the desire of some US Middle East allies and their supporters in this country to punish Iran, especially for behavior that does not directly affect US security.

The stakes are immense. For the first time since 1991, the United States faces a potential threat from a country with nuclear weapons that is openly hostile to the United States. North Korea has not only developed and tested nuclear weapons and claimed that it has some form of “hydrogen” weapon, but it has been developing and testing increasingly sophisticated and longer-range missiles that might be able to carry a nuclear warhead that could survive the rigors of reentry. How much of Pyongyang’s claims for its weapons capabilities are fact and how much are fiction is beside the point: the United States must henceforth treat the DPRK as a country that in the relatively near future will be able to bring some portion of the US mainland under nuclear attack— unless it can somehow be convinced to change course.

Despite all the discussion about alternatives open to the United States, only two are realistic: convincing North Korea to abandon its bomb and delivery system capabilities and/or deterring an attack on the United States (and allied countries). A third option, intercepting North Korean missiles with anti-ballistic missiles, is problematic. A further alternative, a preemptive attack on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, is possible, but would impose a prohibitive price: the almost certain destruction of a large part of South Korea, notably Seoul, by North Korean conventional weapons.

Unless there is decisive change in North Korean behavior, the United States needs to bring out of storage concepts and capabilities from the Cold War, for two purposes. The first is mutual deterrence, where the US and North Korea each tries to forestall the other from attacking, lest both suffer major destruction. The second was developed for Western Europe during the Cold War and entailed extending the US deterrent umbrella to cover its NATO allies.. It was difficult enough then to convince them that the United States had tied its very existence to deterring a Soviet military attack on Western Europe. It would be harder to convince Asian allies of a similar linking of the US destiny to theirs in the face of a potential North Korean attack on them but not on us. US strategic thinking about these twin deterrence problems has hardly begun, much less the embedding of the issues involved in US security and political culture.

The United States has repeatedly gone to the United Nations Security Council to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea. It has succeeded, as recently as this past week, with a unanimous decision that also included China and Russia—but after, at their insistence, watering down some of the strictures. But sanctions, certainly on their own, have little if any hope of working. Unfortunately, for many years too many people in the United States have convinced themselves that economic sanctions are a potent weapon. That is rarely the case, and there is no evidence that sanctions work against a country, like North Korea, that believes its security to be at risk, including its key interest in “regime survival.”.

In recent months, the United States has asserted that it has no interest in changing the regime in Pyongyang or in pushing for reunification of the two Koreas except in circumstances to which the two countries agree. But the US has no credibility on this point. Indeed, regime change has been a US policy regarding the DPRK since the Korean War six decades ago (as it also is toward Iran). Further, from the North Korean perspective, US military activities around North Korea show hostile intent, or at least Pyongyang can exploit them for internal purposes. Washington believes that it needs such activities to reassure Japan, South Korea, and other East Asian allies (plus Taiwan), and also to make China and maybe Russia uneasy about what the United States might do militarily.

Yet assurances that the United States has abandoned any ambitions of North Korean regime change are further undermined by what the US has done in the Middle East in recent years. North Koreas’ Kim Jong Un can’t be oblivious to what happened to Libya’s Qaddafi after he gave up his country’s nuclear program or what happened to Saddam Hussein.

Even more important and more immediately relevant, Chairman Kim Jong Un must be aware of US behavior toward Iran since it accepted draconian limits on its nuclear program. Not just has the United States been slow to meet its obligations in lifting nuclear-deal-related sanctions but President Trump has said more than once that he might not next month recertify that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, despite testimony by the International Atomic Energy Agency to the contrary. Even though he seemed this week to back away from this threat, he did say that the Iranians “have violated so many different elements, but they’ve also violated the spirit of that [nuclear] deal. And you will see what we’ll be doing in October. It will be very evident.”.Further, Congress is imposing more sanctions, and senior US officials are stigmatizing Iran as being, the Islamic State aside, the worst “bad actor” in the Middle East.

For Kim Jung Un, there can be only one conclusion: he must get nuclear weapons and the ability to strike the United States.

Maybe a different approach to Iran would not convince Kim Jung Un that U.S. assurances on regime change can be trusted. However, without such a different approach, the chances are zero. The choices the United States has made regarding Iran have limited, even more than they would already be, Washington’s options regarding North Korea. Further, given that the North Korean nuclear gun threatens the United States but the US is not directly threatened by Iran, a split has opened up between US strategic interests and those of some Middle East allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. Over time, the implications could be profound.

The entire issue of diplomacy thus comes down to China (with a bit part for Russia). But it’s not clear that Beijing has the needed leverage, and their willingness to make bringing North Korea to heel is in doubt. American Sinologists do tell us that Beijing would not want to see the North Korean regime collapse, lest many thousands of refugees would pour across the Yalu. Nor can China be indifferent to the possibility of a unified Korea, especially one with nuclear weapons that cleaves to the US as a counterweight to Chinese influence.

But China is unlikely to act against North Korea if the United States links the North Korean issue to other aspects of Sino-American relations. Economic interdependence between Washington and Beijing already limits each country’s flexibility, and thus this instrument is not available to Washington. Nevertheless, China might anyway decide to do what it can regarding North Korea for two reasons. First, Beijing is generally cautious about events in its neighborhood that do not directly impinge on what it sees to be its national patrimony (notably Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea). Second, China fears that either Japan or South Korea or both would opt for nuclear weapons. This may have become more likely given comments by candidate Donald Trump last year about the possibility of South Korea and Japan getting nuclear weapons, which raised doubts there about US security commitments.

This is not a pretty picture for the United States, but it is a realistic one. In the world in which the US now must live, in an increasing number of situations America’s military superiority cannot guarantee outcomes that favor US. national security. For the first time, nuclear proliferation, beyond Russia and China, now has a direct impact on US security in the homeland. Iran and North Korea do not exist in separate boxes. Even if China were prepared to bring maximum pressure to bear on Kim Jong Un, by damaging or destroying the Iran nuclear deal the United States would only reinforce North Korea’s current commitment to being able to strike the US with nuclear weapons.

Photo: Iran and North Korea discuss ties.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. There is no North Korea nuclear threat to the US. Even if there were, there are still MAD (which has served for decades) and US anti-missile defense, which supposedly has been proven.

    What needs to happen (but probably won’t) is more US reliance on diplomacy and less on force of arms. DPRK is especially incensed over the huge US presence in ROK and the continued provocations including military exercises and bomb-dropping demonstration, the latter especially motivating DPRK to develop its own defense to prevent a replay of the utter destruction of North Korea by the US years ago. There need to be some US adherence to the 1953 Armistice Agreement and some US effort to end the Korean War.

  2. Should any country believe the United States when it signs an agreement?
    It was reported in Washington post today that US Secretary of State Mr. Rex Tillerson, in an impromptu appearance at the press briefing room at the State Department said words to the effect;

    “I would like assure the North Koreans that USA is not their enemy; does not want any harm to come to them; they have nothing to be afraid off; the US does not seek regime change or the forced unification of the Korean peninsula, and the N Koreans need have no fear of ay military invasion from the US.”
    He then went on to say the North Korean ballistic missile program is a serious threat to the US and therefore it is exerting peaceful pressure on N. Korea and would urge them to come to the negotiating table and start peaceful negotiations with the USA.”
    He also confessed that “the US does not have any good options available to it to limit the North Korean Ballistic Missile program”.
    Very conciliatory words from the Foreign Minister of the most powerful country in the world to a puny military dictator of an economically bankrupt country, where half the population is reported not have enough to eat!
    On the face of it one would think that such a speech should allay any fears that the North Koreans may have from the US and they would come around to taking a more reasonable stance. This is more so since there have been open hints that a peaceful settlement of these matters could in fact be accompanied by significant economic and other incentives.
    So, what does the little guy have to lose? On the face of it, it seems to be a perfect win-win situation.
    However, during the same briefing Mr. Tillerson then went on to say that the US is examining the P5 +1 Nuclear agreement with Iran very closely to find out how it can prove that Iran has violated the agreement. This could then be grounds for it to tear up the agreement.
    He made this statement only days after the State Department had certified that the Iranians had held up their end of the bargain. However, Mr Tillerson said that even though this may be so, they have not adhered to the spirit of the agreement in view of their involvement in several regional conflicts which exposes their regional ambitions.
    So, it appears that if a country enters into an agreement with the US on an issue, it should also follow their lead on all peripheral issues also, even though these matters have nothing to do with the issue on which the agreement has been signed.
    This seems to be like a pact with the Devil. You succumb to one temptation and you are on a sliding path to hell!
    The saving grace in the case of the Nuclear deal is that the USA is not the only power with whom the agreement has been signed and Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China are also a party to it. The other powers are happy that the agreement has ended a major area of uncertainty and instability in the world. They are sure that its signature and continued adherence are essential for Iran not to be able to develop nuclear weapons for the medium term at least. They view this as a very positive development for regional and world peace.
    Many people in the world including myself applauded the signing of the Iran Nuclear deal and complemented President’s Obama and Rouhani for their foresight and statesmanship.
    However, in view of the unfolding attitudes of the US and some Arab nations in the region, there is an alternative view taking hold; one that believes that it may have been a “historical mistake” on the part of Iran to sign this agreement.
    This view is based on the fact that many of the concessions made by Iran are irreversible.
    As a result of this deal Iran has dismantled most of its centrifuges and given up the stock pile of nuclear fissile material it had accumulated. Furthermore, it has agreed to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection, to assure the world that it has no plans to back out of this agreement. In return for this they have gotten a lifting of the UN sanction and release of some embargoed funds.
    It would be extremely difficult for Iran to reassemble the Bank of centrifuges or build up a stockpile of fissile material, in view of the inspections. Even if Iran was to back out of the agreement, any attempt to reassemble its nuclear potential would most likely be met with military action from the US, Israel and some Arab states. They may be able to get the support of the Europeans also.
    On the other hand, the concessions made by the other powers are NOT irreversible.
    The “snap back” provision in the deal allows the sanctions and other economic restrictions to be re-instated immediately in case of any violations by Iran.
    As of now and despite the noises coming out of Washington, the rest of the World still believes that the Iran nuclear deal was a very good measure to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons and for world peace.
    The Iranian regime continues to say that the agreement by Iran to this deal was done consciously to demonstrate that it never had any intention of making nuclear weapons, and not because of some clever negotiations by the other powers.
    However, if despite adherence to the deal by Iran, the US was to take unilateral action in breaking the agreement under some pretext and the Europeans go along with this measure, then the view of the deal being a big mistake by Iran would gain unanimity.
    In any case the US attitude towards the Iranian deal has dealt a fatal blow to US credibility. It should be lesson for any country which is negotiating with it on any issue big or small.
    Specifically, it has made any potential negotiations with the North Koreans all that more difficult.
    It tells Kim Jong IL that all this sweet talk from Mr. Tillerson today may be just a subterfuge to get the North Koreans to the table and make some irreversible concessions and then leave them high and dry after this is done.

  3. I wrote the above about a month ago- published in the blog section of the Express Tribune in Pakistan.

  4. “the N Koreans need have no fear of ay military invasion from the US.”” is a diversion from the fears North Koreans have of the US bombers and the US warships that operate very close to North Korea. By the way Kim Jong IL was the father of the present leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong IL died in 2011

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