"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Lessons from Iran for Trump’s Negotiations with North Korea

Arms Control NOW


The joint statement from the historic June 12 Singapore summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump stated that North Korea will “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and the two countries “commit to hold follow-on negotiations.” Assessing whether the summit was a success or a failure will depend in large part on what the follow-on talks accomplish and if the process leads to concrete steps by North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear weapons program.

The indication in the summit document that the United States and North Korea intend to engage in a process is a more realistic approach to denuclearization and a welcome change from earlier statements by the administration suggesting a quick fix, such as references to the “Libya model” which calls for immediate denuclearization before any reciprocal concessions, as previously suggested by Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

But while there is no good ‘model’ for a deal with North Korea, the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provides three important lessons that Trump should draw upon as he moves forward from what he called “the beginning of an arduous process” with North Korea.

1) Close coordination with partners and allies is critical

The P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) demonstrated remarkable cohesion throughout the two-year JCPOA negotiation process. Unity between the partners over the goals of the negotiations was critical to the success of the agreement and it prevented Iran from exploiting any differences between the P5+1 to weaken their negotiating position. Even the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 did not create division between the parties on the objectives of the negotiations.

While nuclear negotiations with North Korea may not take place in a similar multilateral format, unity between the United States and its allies and partners in the region on goals and strategy for reaching an agreement with Pyongyang will be critical. Preliminary negotiations with North Korea have lacked sufficient unity and collaboration between the relevant actors. Despite South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s involvement in bringing Kim and Trump together, Trump’s temporary cancellation of the summit in May appeared to take Moon by surprise, as did Trump’s post-summit news conference statement on canceling the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Responding to the unanticipated declaration by Trump, Seoul’s presidential office said that “at this point, we need to find out the precise meanings or intentions of President Trump’s remarks.” While Moon later said South Korea was open to the suspension, South Korea, as a close U.S. ally immediately affected by the move, should have been consulted.

Additionally, high on the priority list for Japan in negotiations with North Korea are chemical, biological, and shorter-range missiles, as well as abductees, issues that Trump administration has mentioned, but not addressed as part of the U.S. approach.

Finally, not to be forgotten are also North Korea’s other two neighbors, China and Russia, which are both looking to be more involved in the process. While these states share the U.S. goal of denuclearization of North Korea, what that process looks like, and what is included, differs in Moscow and Beijing.

These diverging priorities and goals could lead to severe consequences if a unified strategy and reconciled objectives do not emerge between the U.S. and the involved regional powers. Collaborative diplomacy and effective communication across the globe will be a main key to success.

2) Maintain Pressure

A second lesson from the JCPOA that can be applied to denuclearization talks with North Korea is the importance of maintaining sanctions and pressure through the end of the negotiation process. While some sanctions were eased after the November 2013 interim agreement with Iran, most U.N., U.S., and E.U. sanctions were not lifted until Iran took steps to roll back its nuclear activities and introduce enhanced monitoring mechanisms required under the final deal. Maintaining the pressure throughout the talks helped keep Iran at the bargaining table and provided an incentive for closing the deal.

Some sanctions relief early in a North Korea process might be an appropriate and necessary concession. However, it is vital that the existing sanctions on North Korea remain in place - and are implemented - in order to not give away too much too early, especially as widespread skepticism exists around Kim’s intentions for denuclearization.

Unfortunately, some signs already indicate that South Korea and China, along with other Southeast Asian countries, are eager to ease up on sanctions if the diplomatic talks continue. Trump has also stated that he no longer wants to use the term “maximum pressure” when discussing his North Korean strategy.

In testifying before the June 5 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing, North Korea expert Victor Cha expressed concern that Kim is already benefiting from this eased pressure that stemmed from the widespread regional optimism over the summit. Just as it was demonstrated to Iran, North Korea needs to understand that it will only see substantial sanctions relief if the denuclearization process moves forward.

3) Consider an interim agreement

In November 2013, the P5+1 and Iran reached an interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that prohibited Iran from further expanding its nuclear program, ended higher-level uranium enrichment, and allowed for expanded inspections. In return, Iran was able to access some of its frozen assets and a few sanctions were lifted. The interim deal eased tensions and provided confidence that both sides were willing to negotiate and abide by a deal. This is an idea worth considering for North Korea, and it fits in well with a step-by-step process.

An interim deal with North Korea could formalize the suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile testing and introduce a verifiable freeze on fissile material production. In return, the United States could pledge to refrain from imposing additional sanctions on North Korea and maintain the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that Trump announced at the summit.

Trump seems to be headed in the right direction by stating that he understands the denuclearization of North Korea will come only through an extended and reciprocal process. However, the recent summit must be complemented with a cohesive strategy informed by previous arms control and nonproliferation efforts like the JCPOA. As demonstrated by the Iran nuclear deal, international unity in objectives and strategies, as well as a sufficient enforcement of existing sanctions and an implementation of interim measures, will be necessary to confront the hostile regime and work toward denuclearization.