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Trump’s killing of Soleimani only feeds Kim Jong Un’s biggest fear

The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani last week reinforces the North Korean view that the U.S. only takes such actions against states that lack a credible nuclear deterrent.

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Tokyo/Hong Kong: If Kim Jong Un needed another reminder about the risks of bargaining away North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the U.S., President Donald Trump’s decision to kill one of Iran’s top commanders provides one.

The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani last week reinforces the North Korean view that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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,” said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia risk analysis at Verisk Maplecroft. “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 U.S. 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 “U.S. missile attack” against Iran to appear in its state-run media. The regime already had cautionary tales such as the death of Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, whom the U.S. 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-U.S. 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 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 U.S. Last week, 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 U.S. rolls back its hostile policy.”

The Soleimani killing makes the possibility of a U.S. “decapitation strike” against North Korea seem less remote if the relationship between Trump and Kim further breaks down. The regime has accused the American 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.

Also read: Pushing US out of Iraq – the sweet revenge Iran can get for Soleimani’s death


‘Warning Sign’

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 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.

The U.S. 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.

U.S. policy makers have long lumped North Korea with Iran, such as when then-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 U.S.’s 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 U.S. “is recognized today as an unreliable and untrustworthy country.” Last week, 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 U.S. diplomat specializing in Korean Peninsula issues, said such symbolic ties would make North Korea pay close attention to how the U.S.-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.

Also read: This is no time for the US to snub Iran’s foreign minister


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