With a planned summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un fast approaching, the timing of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA (Iran Deal) cannot be accidental.
While the president faced a deadline regarding the Iran Deal, he could have postponed the decision for another six months with a simple certification. While some have criticized the timing, claiming it will make Kim less likely to trust the U.S. with a similar deal, that may be exactly the point — a deal with North Korea will not be anything like the Iran Deal. Indeed, the withdrawal may have been a masterful way to subtly, yet firmly, frame the upcoming negotiations in the United States’ favor.
In any negotiation, one of the key early steps is setting the goal posts. What is the possible range of outcomes? What is truly off the table? If the goal posts can be set favorably early on and both sides feel pressure to consummate a deal, the only thing left uncertain is how big a victory will be achieved in the end. The opening move in a negotiation can help set these goal posts, but is fraught with danger. An overly aggressive posture can blow up the process before it starts, set a bad tone for the discussions, and invite an equally aggressive and intransigent response. Another challenge is that an early stake in the ground cannot always be trusted — is the issue really non-negotiable? Must one yield or walk?
By withdrawing from the Iran Deal, President Trump played a perfect opening move in the North Korea negotiations. The withdrawal sent a crystal clear message that a deal with North Korea must be very, very different. It must be permanent. It will not have weak third-party verification. It will not involve a large financial bribe by the U.S. in exchange for promises. It will not abide North Korea remaining a bad actor on the world stage beyond its nuclear program. President Trump placed many stakes in the ground. Furthermore, unlike in a negotiation, it is certain that this is not posturing because the Iran Deal withdrawal provided tangible proof that Trump will act decisively on these principles, not just talk. The negotiation with North Korea begins with an outline already in place where it must end.
This would have been a very aggressive and risky move to open the negotiations if it had been done in the traditional way as an express statement during the negotiations; however, it was not aggressive at all, because we were not yet officially negotiating. The president was not even speaking to North Korea. The message was sent loud and clear without having to say it. It is the best of all worlds.
What about the argument that the odds of a successful negotiation have been reduced because North Korea no longer can trust the U.S. to keep its word? Here the issue is well-framed again. With the Iran Deal President Obama could not achieve consensus or bipartisan support, so he settled for a “political commitment.” There was no treaty. There was not even a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of Congress. Indeed, a majority of the Congress opposed the Iran Deal. The Iran Deal was not built to last. Indeed, we see in domestic policy all the time that when a new party takes the White House, the president uses executive power to reverse the policies of the prior president.
This does not at all mean that the U.S. cannot be trusted. It does mean that the desired result of the North Korea negotiations is not an informal handshake, but ideally a formal treaty. This is not just about how we paper the deal — it goes to its very substance. Kim Jong Un has often said he fears an attack by the U.S. and therefore needs nuclear weapons. What if this is not just posturing, but contains a scintilla of truth? We often forget that the Korean War has not officially ended, and we have thousands of troops on the 38th Parallel. The U.S. knows that we do not desire war in Korea, but what if North Korea truly does not know that? The solution could be an enduring formal treaty. A huge win-win at the end of the process beginning with these negotiations would be the complete dismantling of every vestige of the North Korean nuclear program, verified by unfettered U.S. inspectors, in return for a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. The U.S. would achieve its main goal, and it would cost us nothing. Indeed, it could even give us the flexibility to remove some of our forces from the Korean peninsula. This would be a great victory for all.
Ratification of any treaty would require bipartisan support — is this possible? Absolutely. Most Republicans would follow the president, of course. Democrats would then have the choice of following the president or rejecting a peace treaty ending the Korean War and denuclearizing North Korea. I’m confident pigs will fly.
Dr. Philip J. Rosenthal is the co-founder and president of Fastcase, Inc. (www.fastcase.com) and was the 2016 Republican, Conservative, and Independence Party nominee for Congress in the N.Y. 10th, the district that includes Wall Street and Ground Zero. To read more of his reports — Go Here Now.
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