June 12, 2018

IntelBrief: Iran and North Korea Policy 

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).
  • The Trump Administration is pursuing diametrically opposite policies toward the two leading threats to U.S. security, Iran and North Korea.
  • President Donald Trump is directly engaging North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whereas there is virtually no U.S. contact with Iran’s regime at any level.
  • The Trump Administration is seeking a broad agreement to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, but in May it abandoned an established deal that restricted Iran’s nuclear program significantly.
  • The Trump Administration sees no opportunity, as it does with North Korea, to persuade Iran to strategically realign with the United States and break from its traditional regional allies.


The June 12 summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un raises questions about why the Administration strategy toward seemingly similar threats posed by North Korea and Iran have prompted opposite U.S. policy responses in the two cases. The summit in Singapore is taking place about one month after President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement, which was universally assessed as successfully constraining Iran from developing a nuclear weapon at least until 2030. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal not only reimposed U.S. secondary sanctions on all core Iranian economic sectors, including its oil exports, but implied U.S. hope for a change of Iran’s regime and threatened confrontation with Iran and its proxies on a broad range of regional fronts. The stated U.S. intent was to pressure Iran to reach a revised agreement that completely ends Iran’s nuclear program and curbs Iran’s regional malign activities. But, in contrast to President Trump’s outreach to Kim Jong Un, the Administration offered Iran no promise of high-level engagement, normalization of U.S.-Iran relations, or economic incentives, should it accept the U.S. terms.

The differing policy approaches reflect the U.S. assessments of what is possible - or desirable - with both Iran and North Korea. The Trump Administration assesses that Kim Jong Un might be willing to end six decades of isolation that has left the North Korean economy only a small fraction of that of vibrant South Korea, strategically realign with the United States and its allies, and reduce its dependence on China. Iran, by contrast, is viewed by the Trump Administration as an implacable enemy of the United States, an existential threat to Israel, and font of a religious revolutionary ideology fundamentally at odds with Western values and sensibilities. And, the Trump Administration assessed that the only way to resolve differences over North Korea’s nuclear program is diplomatically; North Korea is conventionally powerful and military action against it could produce tens of thousands of deaths in South Korea and among U.S. forces. Seoul is only 30 miles from North Korea’s forward positions, and well within the reach of its long-range artillery. Iran, by contrast, is not a conventionally capable power and it and its nuclear program could potentially be addressed through U.S. or Israeli military action, should sanctions pressure fail.

The Administration also has opposite assessments of the potential to alter the political structures in North Korea and Iran. North Korea is a one-man-rule, one-party state where no opposition is tolerated or evident. Sanctions and other forms of pressure would not, in the Administration view, ever succeed in toppling the Kim dynasty. Iran’s regime, on the other hand, has been periodically shaken - as recently as January 2018 - by unrest among a young, politically active population that wants engagement with the West. The Trump Administration calculates that sanctions pressure, rather than engagement, could potentially produce an upheaval there whose outcome is a secular, pro-Western regime. 


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