Donald Trump Has Already Undermined Any Talks With North Korea

By threatening to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, Donald Trump is making it far less likely that any upcoming talks with North Korea will succeed.

In The New York Times, David Sanger notes that President Trump’s obvious disdain for the agreement reached in 2015 between Iran and a group of five world powers that included the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China could end up making reaching any kind of deal with North Korea even more improbable than it already seems to be:

WASHINGTON — The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, drastically different but often spoken of in the same breath, are now being thrust together, as President Trump’s determination to kill the landmark 2015 accord limiting Tehran’s capabilities is colliding with his scramble to reach a far more complex deal with Pyongyang.

For years, as the Iranians watched the North Koreans build an arsenal and make deals with the West only to break them, they learned what the world was prepared to do — or was unwilling to risk — to stop them. More recently, the North Koreans picked apart what Tehran got in return for agreeing to a 15-year hiatus in its nuclear ambitions, weighing whether the promised economic benefits were worth giving up its nuclear capabilities.

The North will be watching especially closely in May, when Mr. Trump will face another deadline on deciding whether to abandon the Iran deal, which he has called a “disaster.”

The same month, if all goes as Mr. Trump plans, he will head into a face-to-face negotiation with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un — the first time an American president has ever spoken with the leader of that country — confident in his ability to do what his predecessors could not: persuade the North Koreans to denuclearize.

“The ironies abound,” said Robert S. Litwak, the director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout.”

“The man who wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ has staked out a position that the Iran deal was the worst one in history,” he added. “And now he has to show that he can do much better, with a far harder case.”

On Sunday, the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, speaking on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” set an extraordinarily high bar for his boss, if he ever gets to that negotiation.

Mr. Pompeo acknowledged that Mr. Trump, given his disparagement of the Iran deal reached by the Obama administration, will have to get a better deal out of Mr. Kim. “I think that’s the case,” he told the host, Margaret Brennan, adding that he thought Mr. Trump would be negotiating from a greater position of strength.

That is a debatable notion. Mr. Kim has driven the pace of this diplomatic effort so far, and American officials have conceded surprise at his boldness. And if Mr. Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, Mr. Kim may well wonder why he should negotiate with the United States if a subsequent president can simply pull the plug on any agreement.

By statute, Mr. Trump must decide by May 12 whether to make good on his threat to exit the Iran deal. American officials have said Mr. Trump could pull back if European allies agree to unilaterally crack down on Iran’s missile development — which is not covered by the nuclear deal — and begin a process to make the limits on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear material permanent.

The British and the French are reluctantly going along, though they say they fear that unilateral demands would blow up an arrangement that is working. German officials are balking, saying that extending the duration of the deal would require new negotiations, and new concessions.

Yet if Mr. Trump sticks with the agreement — as his top aides have quietly urged him to do — he faces a different challenge. While he will have to negotiate a deal with the North Koreans that is even stricter than the Iranian one that he has denounced as naïve, insufficient and dangerous, that task will be made all the harder by the fact that Pyongyang, unlike Tehran, actually possesses nuclear weapons.

North Korea has at least 20 by some estimates, or upward of 60 by the count of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Iran has never produced one.

Sangers come at the same time that Axios has reported that Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States would indeed be pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) as the agreement is formally known:

President Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in their meeting at the White House last Monday that he won’t show flexibility in the negotiations with France, Germany and the U.K. on amending the Iran nuclear deal, two senior Israeli officials told me.

  • The officials say Trump told Netanyahu that until now the three European powers only proposed “cosmetic changes” that he doesn’t find satisfactory. Trump said he demands “significant changes” in the Iran deal itself and not simply the addition of a supplemental agreement between the U.S. and the European countries, according to the officials.
  • The bottom line: Trump stressed that if his demands are not met, the U.S. will withdraw from the deal.

The Israeli officials who were briefed on the Trump-Netanyahu meeting spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter. The White House and Netanyahu’s office didn’t deny the details in this report and refused to comment on it.

As others have noted, the proposed talks that have been the subject of conversation around the world since the somewhat surprising announcement late last week regarding a potential meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are already facing long odds given the realities on the ground. While at least some of the reporting seems to indicate that the North Koreans might be willing to consider an agreement that results in them giving up a nuclear option that has been estimated to include as many as sixty warheads, although it’s worth noting that these appear to largely consist of fission-type atomic weapons rather than thermonuclear weapons based on fusion, it’s by no means clear that this is at all a likely outcome in either the short or the long term. As I’ve noted before, the North Koreans have no doubt learned the lessons of recent history and are likely to base their own positions on those events.

Specifically, of course, I’m referring to the examples of the different manner in which nations led by authoritarian leaders have been treated based on whether or not they had nuclear weapons or other “weapons of mass destruction” programs. The best example of this, of course, can be seen in the case of Libya, which gave up its nuclear and WMD research efforts in the wake of the Iraq War in what the leadership at the time clearly believed would be a move that would help ensure their long-term survival. Instead of survival, though, Libya ended up finding itself the target of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in a civil war that ended with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. The North Koreans have also learned a similar lesson from what happened to Saddam Hussein, another autocratic leader who gave up his weapons of mass destruction program only to see his country invaded, him being forced into hiding and eventual capture, after which he faced a trial and ultimately executed.

By contrast, we’ve seen nations such as Pakistan and India, both of which pursued nuclear weapons development notwithstanding international pressure and now possess what is likely a sufficient nuclear deterrent for each nation to ensure its survival. Finally, of course, we have the JCPOA and the manner in which the Iranians were treated given the fact of how far along their research program was at that time the talks that ultimately led to the JCPOA began. Rather than being attacked and deposed as the Libyan and Iraqi governments were, the Iranians obtained an international agreement that allowed them to largely escape a crippling sanctions regime and, to at least some the degree, the acceptance of the Islamic Republic back into the world community from which North Korea has been excluded for the better part of the past two decades.

Now, of course, the United States is threatening to undo the agreement with Iran, and as Daniel Larison notes, the North Koreans are likely to learn a lesson from that too:

It shouldn’t come as a shock that reneging on a carefully negotiated, successful nonproliferation agreement would have negative consequences for arms control diplomacy with a nuclear-armed state. Iran made major concessions that it didn’t have to make under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and as a result it has accepted significant restrictions on its nuclear program to ensure that their program remains peaceful. In return, it was supposed to receive substantial sanctions relief that has been very slow in coming, and it expected to be able to welcome foreign investment that the U.S. has been actively discouraging in a pretty clear breach of our own commitments. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been taking a harder line with Iran across the board since Trump took office. The post-deal treatment of Iran is hardly a ringing endorsement of the benefits of making an agreement with the U.S. and its allies. Trump wants to renege on the deal anyway because it did not force Iran’s complete surrender. That bodes ill for what Trump thinks a “good deal” with North Korea would look like. Once the U.S. reneges on the JCPOA, North Korea will have another very big reason not to trust any U.S. promises made during negotiations with them.


Trump presumably doesn’t even realize that he is doing this because he buys the convenient, false story that North Korea has nuclear weapons because previous efforts at engagement failed. On the contrary, engagement with North Korea has been the only thing that has worked at all, but the Bush administration insisted on and all-or-nothing outcome and ended up with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran would seriously undermine any diplomatic efforts with North Korea, but I fear that Trump and his advisers don’t understand or care.

The Trump administration is proceeding under the mistaken assumption that their “maximum pressure” campaign has forced North Korea into doing something it doesn’t want to do, but the truth is that their campaign has already failed and isn’t going to produce the results they want. Trump wants to renege on the JCPOA, and when he does he will think that he is showing the world how “tough” he is being on an adversary, but all that anyone else will see is proof that there is no point in making a deal with the U.S. that a future administration can discard like the trash.

Larison is correct of course. If Trump does end up following through on his reported commitment to Netanyahu then it will send a signal to the North Koreans that the United States cannot be trusted to live up to its international agreements from one Administration to the next. This will make the already difficult process of reaching any kind of agreement with the DPRK even more difficult than it already seems to be.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    An article in Axios this morning points out that Trump had his “happiest” week last week, when he decided to start ignoring all his advisors and operate on his own instincts.

    God help us all.

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Let’s see President Donny Dennison negotiate a deal with Korea…and if it’s better than the Iran deal…then have a go at the Iran deal. And if not…maybe it’s time to STFU and go back home.
    Allies signed a new version of the TPP last week without US participation; originally intended to counter-balance China, the new agreement invites China to become the leader in the Region absent the US.
    NAFTA negotiations are stalled.
    The big beautiful healthcare he negotiated covers fewer people, costs more for both individuals and the Government, and delivers far less for that money.
    The middle class tax cut he negotiated isn’t a middle class tax cut.
    His gun reform looks just like NRA gun reform.
    There is a reason Dennison drove multiple casinos to bankruptcy; he has no idea what it is he is doing.
    There is a reason he would have more money today than he does if he had simply invested the money his daddy gave him in the S&P 500; he has no idea what it is he is doing.
    The real danger with N. Korea is that once Dennison fails to get a deal…because he has no idea what it is he is doing…the diplomacy options will have been exhausted, and a shooting war will be the only option left to us.
    Look…if you can’t successfully negotiate a deal with a porn star…you really can’t negotiate anything.
    President Donny Dennison can’t negotiate anything.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:
    Yep. Trump will never improve, he will never succeed, because he is a damaged, borderline personality. Character determines outcome. Men like Lincoln and Churchill and FDR arrived at their historical moments with characters forged by something other than narcissism. They knew things, believed things, cared profoundly about things. Trump is incapable of caring about anyone but himself. Utterly incapable. Permanently, irreversibly incapable.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So trump is The Deal Breaker.

  5. Kathy says:

    Trump aside, the partisan divisions in America are making diplomacy and trade treaties nearly impossible.

    While it has always been true that a change in administrations brought along some changes in how the US conducted diplomacy, treaties were observed by the party in the White House even if they didn’t sign it. Treaties and deals in progress were usually continued to be negotiated, even with changes in terms (as Clinton kept on negotiating NAFTA, which began under Bush the elder).

    Now, even if Trump concludes a deal, with North Korea or any other country, who’s to say the next administration won’t just break it, or declare it void?

    If a deal or treaty won’t last past the next election, who will even bother to negotiate or deal with the US at all?

  6. dazedandconfused says:

    I think he’s wrong on what is being negotiated in this one. The South Koreans asked for it and apparently because they have a tentative agreement: The Norks will cease testing ICBMs in exchange for at least some sanctions being removed. That would be a defacto approval of the Norks nuke program, but a banning of ICBM capability for it. Trump is being brought in to thumbs up or thumbs down that, not to negotiate the end of Nork nukes.

    I don’t think it at all likely the Norks are placing their warheads on any table. Sanger seems to think, as a lot of folks still do, they will…or must….because of the sanctions. They are kidding themselves…unless they are ready for war. I think it highly likely Trump’s most trusted adviser on international relations will recommend the US accept the cessation of missile testing. It is unrealistic to expect the Norks to give up their nukes, that would likely be a death sentence for any Nork leader who did so.

    While the Norks have know any deal with the US can be switched off at any time…they have nothing to lose in trying, and something to gain even if the sanctions are lifted for a time.

  7. matt bernius says:


    The South Koreans asked for it and apparently because they have a tentative agreement: The Norks will cease testing ICBMs in exchange for at least some sanctions being removed.

    That actually makes sense and is a goal that can actually be accomplished (provided that is the only thing the NK are asking for).

    If that turns out to be the case, the next question is the degree to which PoTUS can stay on target and not attempt to “make a deal” that calls for more concessions.

  8. MBunge says:

    So…people who never thought Donald Trump could bring North Korea to the bargaining table and actually predicted his actions would have the opposite effect are now saying Trump is undermining the meeting they said would never happen?

    Guys, there’s enough actual stuff to criticize with Trump. There probably will be after the meeting. You don’t need to hyperventilate about hypothetical situations.


  9. dazedandconfused says:

    @matt bernius:

    I suspect they will distract him by offering up their three hostages. IIRC they are holding three Americans on trumped up BS. The shiny object will be the thought of what a victory Trump could have for himself if he brought them back with him on AF One. If the South Koreans are smart they will tell Trump to hold out for that, thereby allowing the man-child to feel he has “won”.

    Trump is also rendered mostly harmless by shallow praise, and sure as hell the Norks have noticed. I think we must brace ourselves for Trump’s boasting about how he solved the entire situation myself, and am buying new hip-waders.

  10. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    I know you won’t answer this because you never have the cajones to answer for any of your nonsense…but can you explain to us how giving Kim exactly what he wants…the legitimacy that comes from meeting with a US President…helps negotiations?

  11. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Tillerson is out…Mike Pompeo is in at State.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    This is an actual argument as to why a meeting between these two is unlikely to accomplish anything, as opposed to the “Prestige!” and “It just isn’t done old boy” nonsense we’ve been seeing of late.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong in principle with a U.S. President negotiating directly. What’s wrong is the man negotiating is Donald Trump, who doesn’t have the acumen to navigate such a complicated situation given his lack of historical knowledge and utter ignorance of how any agreement may affect the politics of South Korea, Japan and China.

    Kim is likely much more shrewd than a failed real estate developer.