The US airstrike that killed Iran’s top military commander might have had an indirect casualty: A diplomatic solution to denuclearizing North Korea.
Experts have said the escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran would diminish already fading hopes for such an outcome, and inspire North Korea’s decisionmakers to tighten their hold on the weapons they see, perhaps correctly, as their strongest guarantee of survival.
North Korea’s initial reaction to the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has been cautious. The country’s state media was silent for several days before finally on Monday issuing a brief report on the attack that did not even mention Soleimani’s name.
Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS
The Korean Central News Agency report did not publish any direct criticism by Pyongyang toward Washington, instead simply saying that China and Russia had denounced the US over last week’s airstrike near Baghdad International Airport.
North Korea’s negotiations with the US have been at a stalemate since February last year, when a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump collapsed over disagreements about exchanging sanctions relief for nuclear disarmament.
The North has pointed to that lack of progress, and hinted it might resume tests of nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
While the killing of Soleimani might give Pyongyang pause about provoking the Trump administration in such a way, it ultimately is likely to use the strike to further legitimize its stance that it needs to bolster its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against US aggression.
North Korea has often pointed to the demises of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi while justifying its nuclear development, saying they would still be alive and in power had they obtained nuclear weapons and did not surrender them to the US.
Solemani’s name would soon be mentioned with them too, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.
“North Korea would say that the imperialist nature of the United States would never change, and that there is no other option for them other than to strengthen its nuclear deterrent while bracing for long-term confrontation,” said Koh, an adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
It is clear that Pyongyang has been closely watching the developments between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration in May 2018 abandoned a nuclear agreement Iran reached with world powers in 2015.
North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun daily published more than 30 articles analyzing the US-Iran tensions since August last year, reflecting the keen interest of Pyongyang’s decisionmakers, wrote Hwang Ildo, a professor from South Korea’s National Diplomatic Academy.
Kim and Trump exchanged insults and threats of war during a highly provocative run in North Korean weapons tests in 2017.
However, in 2018, Kim initiated diplomatic talks with Washington and suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests. The opening came after months of concerns that the Trump administration could consider preventive military action against North Korea.
There are views that North Korea’s measured brinkmanship of last year, highlighted by tests of shorter-range weapons and defiant statements on overcoming US-led sanctions, were influenced by Tehran’s calibrated provocations against Washington, which coincided with efforts to retain European countries participating in the 2015 deal.
Washington’s decision not to retaliate against Iran’s interception of a US surveillance drone in June last year could have emboldened Pyongyang, which possibly concluded it would not have to fear US military action as long as it avoids directly threatening US lives or more crucial assets, some experts have said.
The US airstrike that took out Soleimani came after Iranian proxies fired rockets onto an Iraqi base, killing a US contractor, and those proxies then helped generate a mob that attacked the US embassy in Baghdad.
In comments published on New Year’s Day, Kim said there were no longer grounds for North Korea to be “unilaterally bound” to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, which Trump has repeatedly boasted as a major foreign policy accomplishment.
However, Kim gave no explicit indication that he was abandoning negotiations entirely or restarting the suspended tests.
He seemed to leave the door open to diplomacy, saying that North Korea’s efforts to bolster its deterrent would be “properly coordinated” depending on US attitudes.
The US’ killing of Soleimani would make the North more hesitant about crossing a metaphorical “red line” with the Trump administration by restarting such tests, said Cha Du-hyeogn, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University.
“The airstrike does serve as a warning to North Korea about taking extreme actions as the presumption that the Trump administration refrains from using military force when concerned about consequences has been shattered,” said Cha, an ex-intelligence secretary to former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.
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