Negotiate with North Korea. But the Iran deal is nonnegotiable.


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and missile program is the only alternative to war. But attempting to renegotiate the Iran deal, as U.S. President Donald Trump has called for, would open a can of worms that would likely kill the hard-won agreement to stem nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Furthermore, unraveling the done deal with Iran would doom a potential deal with North Korea because Pyongyang would suspect that whatever is agreed can be changed unilaterally by the U.S. down the road.

In The WorldPost this week, we examine these paradoxical imperatives of finding a resolution to the two most fraught fronts of global conflict today.

“With tensions running high around North Korea’s nuclear program, the world cannot afford another nuclear crisis,” writes Federica Mogherini, the E.U. foreign policy chief who was a key negotiator of the Iran deal. “The nuclear agreement with Iran is working: it has ensured that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful. … The deal is not based on trust. It is based on the most intrusive monitoring regime ever set up in history.”

Mogherini was in Washington this week to lobby the U.S. Congress not to dismember the agreement, whose fate now rests in their hands after Trump’s decertification. Her message is loud and clear: “Renegotiation is not an option. I say this out of realism and experience. It took us 12 years to agree on extremely dense and complex technical details in a process that required all outstanding issues to be tackled in parallel. Unilaterally reopening discussions on this or that paragraph is simply impossible.”

Hong Seok-Hyun, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s former special envoy to the U.S., weighs in from Seoul on the way forward after Trump’s visit there this week. Hong is relieved that Trump’s rhetoric “was admirably restrained. He did not threaten to completely destroy North Korea, as he did in his United Nations address in September. He didn’t call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ‘Little Rocket Man’ again.”

South Korea’s immediate aims are twofold, according to Hong. First, it must work with others to stop Kim from achieving his ultimate goal of attaining the capacity to strike the U.S. “If the U.S. mainland faces a direct threat from North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, confidence in Washington’s nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence to South Korea will be shaken,” Hong worries, since the U.S. will likely protect itself first, leaving South Korea vulnerable. Second, South Korea must also avoid a war on Korean soil aimed at taking out the North’s nukes because it would be catastrophic for its citizens. Hong welcomed Trump’s declaration that the objective of stronger sanctions and the threat of force is to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

Yet what the American president didn’t say worries Hong: “I expected to hear — but did not — an explicit declaration from Trump that even if the day comes that North Korea completes and deploys an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the U.S. mainland, Washington’s nuclear umbrella will protect South Korea and Japan. If the U.S. doesn’t make this clear, the South Korean and Japanese people will start asking why they can’t develop their own nuclear weapons for protection.”

Hong also laid out several key steps going forward, including a hotline with Pyongyang to prevent war by accident or miscalculation; a special envoy to meet and confirm in person that the U.S. is not seeking regime change; and South Korea to maintain a united front of pressure on North Korea by avoiding a rift between the U.S. and Japan on one side and China and Russia on the other.

The mastermind behind Xi Jinping’s power

As Trump tours Asia this week, his most important stop was to Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Among the most daunting challenges in understanding China today is fathoming the thinking behind Xi’s broad initiatives — most notably strengthening the Communist Party’s grip by cracking down on civil society and the media while drawing on the tradition of Confucian ethics to fight corruption. Fortunately, Wang Huning, a top party ideologist just elevated to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo that rules the Middle Kingdom, has left a long paper trail that provides the best insight we are likely to get into the mindset of China’s leadership.

“Wang’s writing over the years is so strikingly parallel to the policies Xi has adopted,” notes scholar and diplomatic translator Yi Wang, “that he is regarded by many as the brain behind the throne, the mandarin behind the emperor. What Wang has written offers huge clues to understanding where China is headed.”

A sampling of the scholar’s contributions:

  • In a book entitled “America Against America,” based on his travels in the U.S., Wang “compares American democracy and elections to shareholders in a corporation. In theory, he observes, all shareholders have a say; in reality, minority shareholders control the company.”
  • Wang “argues against ‘grafting’ Western-style democracy onto the Chinese system, stressing instead that political democratization should not overstep the country’s developmental level, or ‘ba miao zhu zhang,’ a Chinese proverb that means to ‘help a seedling grow taller by pulling it out of its soil.’ He maintains that political reform should not be pursued at the expense of stability and that strong, unified central leadership is crucial to further reforms, which should be led by inter-party democratization rather than initiated from the outside. Such expositions were characterized by Chinese commentators in the 1980s and 90s as the ‘new authoritarianism,’ although Wang himself rejected that label.”
  • “Following China’s Confucian tradition, [Wang] also calls for moral education to raise the moral standards of the whole society and especially of officials who he believes must ‘internalize’ ethical behavior.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

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