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What do the Pompeo and Bolton appointments mean for talks with North Korea?

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The president’s surprising concession to meet with Kim Jong Un on short notice already raised questions about what he sought (or hoped) to accomplish from the meeting, especially given his seat-of-the-pants style of decision-making. Prospects for the meeting are now even more uncertain given the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of State and the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Adviser – both hard-liners who have advocated military action against North Korea. 

The Trump-Kim meeting may not occur at all. Or worse, it may deadlock quickly after excessive demands by both sides, and the president may heed the advice of Bolton-the-commentator and pursue a preemptive strike against North Korea because “negotiations failed.” On the other hand, if the president truly wants to take a step toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, he will have to take a step back from the hard-liner rhetoric and take to heart the lessons to be gleaned from the negotiations on the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the “JCPOA”). I was the legal adviser to the U.S. delegation on both of these negotiations, and from that experience I see the following lessons:

{mosads}First, the goal of the deal cannot be to make North Korea a good global citizen. Such expectations guarantee failure. But we may be able to set up an incremental process by which the North Korean threat to the U.S. and our regional allies is diminished over time. We know North Korea will test the agreement’s boundaries, and so we must treat any deal as a tool for bringing them back in line rather than a “gotcha” document we can use to mete out punishment (for example, Bolton stated in his memoirs that North Korea’s move toward uranium enrichment in violation of the 1994 deal “was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework”).

Second, details matter. The 100-page JCPOA laid out the two sides’ commitments in far greater detail than the seven-page Agreed Framework and its Confidential Minute. This additional specificity allows us to demonstrate tangibly any noncompliance by the other side as well as our own compliance. By clearly defining in detail the actions Iran must take – for example, to dismantle the Arak reactor and deactivate 13,000 centrifuges – the JCPOA has given our allies, other members of the P5+1, and our intelligence community confidence that the JCPOA is being implemented. If North Korea is unwilling to commit to specific metrics and instead seeks short, vague statements such as those produced in the Six Party Talks (2003-07), it would be an indication that they are just buying time for the Kim regime.

Third, verification and dispute resolution need to be built in from the beginning. An essential and enduring achievement of the JCPOA is Iran’s agreement to implement its Additional Protocol with the IAEA, which gives the IAEA far greater access to nuclear-related locations in Iran. The Joint Commission established under the JCPOA is a forum that has already proved beneficial in working through compliance and interpretive issues. We know that North Korea would test an agreement’s boundaries, so including these measures at the outset would enforce the notion that the deal is a tool for managing North Korean behavior rather than a trap for “proving” that negotiated solutions never work (as the Bush administration did with the Agreed Framework).

The nomination of Pompeo and the appointment of Bolton on the eve of the meeting with Kim Jung Un do not augur well for this foray into nuclear diplomacy. But as they say, only Nixon could go to China: if this administration somehow negotiates a specific, verifiable deal regarding the North Korean nuclear threat, the deal has a better chance politically of being sustained in future administrations than the Agreed Framework under Bush or the JCPOA under Trump. 

Newell Highsmith served for 30 years as an attorney at the U.S. Department of State, with primary responsibility for legal issues related to arms control and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles. During his career, he served as primary or sole legal adviser on the U.S. delegations that negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, the 2008 Agreement for Nuclear Cooperation with India, and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

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