If Kim Jong-un needed another reminder about the risks of bargaining away North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the US, President Donald Trump’s decision to kill one of Iran’s top commanders provides one.
The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 reinforces the North Korean view that the US only takes such actions against states that lack a credible nuclear deterrent. More specifically, Trump’s choice of attack — a covert drone strike against a high-level target — feeds regime fears that any US offensive against Pyongyang would start at the top.
“The attack will only entrench the belief in Pyongyang that a nuclear deterrent, which Iran lacks, is essential for the physical survival of Kim Jong-un,” Verisk Maplecroft head of Asia risk analysis Miha Hribernik said. “Kim and other senior North Korean officials could, in theory, be targeted the same way in the future.”
The Soleimani killing came at a precarious time for Trump’s nuclear talks with North Korea, just two days after Kim announced that he was no longer bound by his pledge to halt major weapons tests and vowed “shocking” action against the US. While the strike may give Kim pause about how far he can push Trump in the coming months, it also reaffirms the dangers of meeting American disarmament demands.
Those concerns have long weighed on talks with North Korea, which has allowed only a brief report on China and Russia condemning the “US missile attack” against Iran to appear in its state-run media and made another indirect mention in the Pyongyang Times, a small, foreign-language weekly aimed at expatriates in the capital. The regime already had cautionary tales such as the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whom the US helped topple less than a decade after he gave up his own nuclear weapons.
Just weeks before Trump’s first unprecedented meeting with Kim in June 2018, then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton proposed that North Korea adopt the “Libya model” of disarmament — a remark that the president disavowed. Around the same time, Trump further complicated the Kim summit by withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation deal that his predecessor, former US president Barack Obama, reached with Iran.
That decision raised questions about what sort of agreement the Trump administration could reach with North Korea, which, unlike Iran, has already demonstrated its possession of nuclear bombs and missiles capable of carrying them to the continental US. Earlier this month, Kim told a gathering of ruling party leaders in Pyongyang that he would soon debut a “new strategic weapon” and ruled out denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula “until the US rolls back its hostile policy.”
The Soleimani killing makes the possibility of a US “decapitation strike” against North Korea seem less remote if the relationship between Trump and Kim further breaks down. The regime has accused the US side of plotting to kill Kim as recently as 2017, a claim bolstered by subsequent revelations that the country’s hackers had stolen secret allied military plans to take out the Pyongyang leadership.
Andrei Lankov, the Seoul-based director of the Korea Risk Group consulting firm, said Trump’s latest move will be viewed as a “warning sign” by those in North Korea who may have read his decisions to meet Kim and call off an earlier strike against Iran as weakness.
“They will behave far more carefully with far more reserve than they would do otherwise,” Lankov said.
Although it was difficult to assess how the incident was being received within the secretive state, there was no obvious change in Kim’s behavior. State media published a report on Tuesday last week showing Kim making what appeared to be a routine visit to a factory site, unlike his late father, Kim Jong-il, who withdrew from public view for weeks after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris called on Seoul to send forces to help protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, saying in an interview with TV broadcaster KBS that it would be in the country’s interests because it imports “so much of” its energy from the Middle East.
US policymakers have long lumped North Korea with Iran, such as when then-US president George W. Bush listed the two countries alongside Iraq in his “axis of evil” speech in 2002. The National Defense Strategy published by the Trump administration in 2018 described North Korea and Iran as two “rogue regimes” whose actions were destabilizing their respective regions.
“North Korean state media often is implicitly sympathetic to Iran,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a specialist on North Korea at Seoul-based NK Pro. “It often cites the Iranian government’s position on foreign policy and weapons development issues, and criticizes the US’ policy of ‘pressure’ on countries such as Iran.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told visiting North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in 2018 that the US “is recognized today as an unreliable and untrustworthy country.” North Korean media published new year’s greetings from Rouhani, repeating a long-held line that the two states are unjustly targeted by Washington.
Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat specializing in Korean Peninsula issues, said such symbolic ties would make North Korea pay close attention to how the US-Iran conflict unfolds after the strike on Soleimani.
“What’s happening to Iran now must certainly make Pyongyang confident in the priority it has put on a credible nuclear deterrent,” Oba said.
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