Between Kim and Qom: Iran and North Korea

June 19, 2018

5 min read

Mordechai Kedar

This week’s much-publicized meeting in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, held the entire world’s attention for days, in no small part because of the important, multi-leveled questions on regional, international and internal fronts that it raises.

Regionally and internationally, the entire world would like to know whether Trump can succeed in convincing Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. Will Kim agree to the establishment of a supervisory body with teeth that ensures that the agreement is fully and strictly carried out?  Will Trump grant Kim guarantees to ensure that if he gives up nuclear arms he does not suffer the fate of Qaddafi after that despot did the same? Will North Korea be allowed to come out of its international isolation and will the economic sanctions upon that country be removed? Will countries interested in investing in North Korean economic projects be able to do so?

Regarding internal matters, the questions continue. Will Kim liberate his citizens from their current strangulation? Will he close the “reeducation” camps in which thousands of North Koreans are incarcerated? Will the public executions for sullying Kim’s honor be stopped? Will the man in the street enjoy the economic agreements expected to be signed with foreign countries, or will the royal family and its cronies concentrate all the profits in their pockets?

In the end, the most important question of all for North Koreans is whether Trump intends to create a linkage between the international questions and the internal ones. That is, will Trump condition the lightening of political and economic sanctions on a change in Kim’s attitude to human rights and political liberty for North Korea’s citizens, including the shutting down of torture and death camps in addition to the nuclear issues?

Most pundits doubt that this will occur, because in the long run, a change in nuclear arming is a political one, while a change in the human rights situation means a change in the form of government.  Changing government policy is unquestionably easier than changing the way the government functions. It is to be hoped that changes in the country’s regime do occur, but in a measured fashion, step by step, not with undue haste and not as a result of pressure or upheaval.

This week Kim fired three Army generals, perhaps a sign to Trump that he is willing to change his policies. We will all have to wait to see if Kim actually does replace the cadre surrounding him as well as his policies, both on the internal, regional and international planes.

The answers to these questions seem to depend most on the “interpersonal chemistry” and personal relations that Trump and Kim succeed in forming between them, as America’s political stance has, over the last year and a half, become dependent almost entirely on Trump’s personal approach.

There are those in the US and the world who see this as a good sign, but there are many who look at it askance and many who strongly disapprove. Many of the commentators discuss Trump and Kim’s body language and small gestures, their tones of voice, the number of seconds their handshakes took, the invitation Trump extended to Kim to visit the US and the White House and whether their meeting went on longer than planned.

The Europeans, for their part, see Trump’s personal approach in a negative light, because running economic and political policy with a US businessman’s approach to things is totally unacceptable to Europe. The Europeans are accustomed to the past in which the US never worried about its own interests in such an obvious manner.

The discordant way in which last week’s G7 conference in Canada ended proved once again to the Europeans that Trump’s first interest on every issue is what America stands to gain, and that he acts in unpredictable ways that ordinary political predictions cannot foresee.

Two years ago, did anyone expect that any US president would meet with the head of North Korea?  I sense that the Europeans are deathly afraid that the US will opt for the lion’s share of the contracts for rehabilitating North Korea. The US Stock Exchange is already reacting to this possibility positively – and Trump keeps tweeting how proud he is of that outcome.

As far as we in the Middle East are concerned, the meeting between Trump and Kim is probably more significant to us than to any other region, because a very short, strong chain connects what Trump and Kim decide with what happens between the US  and Iran.

Trump threatens both of them in the same fashion:  He tweeted threats of a nuclear attack on North Korea, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and slapped economic sanctions over Iran and any country that maintains economic ties with it.

The Arab world is following the progress of the Trump-Kim summit closely, because the Arabs see it as a promo for what is going to happen to US-Iran relations. Clearly, if Trump manages to persuade or force Kim to really give up his nuclear project, there is going to be a tweet one minute later declaring his intention to do the same to Iran regarding its nuclear and missile-rich aspirations.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has already announced, to Iran’s chagrin, that the goal of the Trump-Kim summit must be convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear project.

In our region, the Middle East, people keep asking: Does Trump want to meet with Khamenei?  What will they talk about?  Do they have anything at all in common? Even if they reach an agreement on the issues over which they disagree, can they possibly develop any interpersonal chemistry?  Would there be enough mutual trust between them to believe that any agreements they reach are based on both sides’ genuine intentions?  Or will Trump and Khamenei’s natural distrust prevent their achieving any understandings or agreements? Does the Ayatollahs’ feeling of superiority at being “true believers” allow them to accept Trump, the Christian whose daughter converted to Judaism, who recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people and moved his embassy there – as a legitimate negotiating partner?

Above all, the most important questions are: If Trump and Kim reach a real agreement on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, how much will this strengthen Trump’s determination to force a similar agreement on the Iranians? How much influence will any kind of agreement signed between Trump and Kim have on Iranian intransigence? How much success will Trump have in forcing the Iranians to cease interfering in the affairs of other countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates?   Can Trump significantly lower the level of Iranian anti-Israel rhetoric? Will Trump attempt to forge a connection between regional and international issues and those dealing with human rights and political liberty in Iran? And if he does try, will he succeed?

It seems too early to answer these questions after one summit meeting. We have no idea what is going to happen between the US and North Korea during the period following the historic meeting of the two leaders. The coming weeks will see various advisors and officials of both sides spending long hours trying to formulate a statement committing both sides to the agreements and understandings their leaders reached in Singapore. As we all know, “the devil is in the details,” and writing down oral understanding in an agreement in which every word is significant, can turn out to be a very difficult, lengthy and exhausting process, one that may very well make both sides realize that a clear and binding agreement is beyond their reach at  this point.

The Iranians are awaiting future developments with bated breath. They know that what happens between Trump and Kim will have discernible influence on what happens between Washington and Qom.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News

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