U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to certify the Iran deal could further erode relations with North Korea at a time of high tensions on the peninsula, a former U.S. State Department official said Saturday.
Speaking at The New Yorker Festival, Wendy Sherman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, said if Trump decides to not certify the deal and “kick it over to Congress,” the measure could have a negative impact.
“Decertification will have an effect on the trust deficit,” Sherman said. “There are eight reports Iran has complied with the deal [to roll back its nuclear program], and it’s a multilateral agreement.”
“Why, then, would North Korea talk with us?”
Sherman was speaking on a panel, featuring North Korea analysts and a journalist, each who have had extensive contact with the regime through negotiations or travel to the country.
All panelists, including James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, agreed escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States are a source of worry.
“Whether or not North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missile technology works or not, it doesn’t matter,” Clapper said. “They have achieved deterrence.”
Clapper said he, like other analysts, is not worried Kim Jong Un would use his nuclear capability to attack the United States.
“What does worry me though is the rhetoric getting out of hand, a conflict at the demilitarized zone,” that divides North and South Korea, Clapper said.
The former head of intelligence also suggested North Korea’s provocations are a form of propaganda.
“They know that without the image, the perception of that capability, nobody would pay attention to them.”
Sherman agreed image, or visibility, is a priority for Kim.
“My sense of Kim Jong Un, who I have not met, because he is young and has less visible experience, less training than his father did, he has to publicly show his brutality even more,” the former U.S. State Department official said.
Sherman was comparing the current leader to his father Kim Jong Il, who she met while serving as policy coordinator for North Korea under the Clinton administration.
“Kim Jong Il was transactional. He was ready to do a deal,” Sherman said, adding North Korea’s policies are being formulated for regime survival.
South Korea-based political analyst Robert Kelly said there is concern of a “spiral, a miscalculation,” owing to a new dynamic of escalating rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.
“If the president would get off Twitter, that would help a great deal,” Kelly said. “The incendiary rhetoric. I don’t know anyone in the analyst community who thinks this is helping.”
Clapper said Trump’s rhetoric is unhelpful, but credited administration officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, State Secretary Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, for handling the crisis.
The president “does have a very sound group of advisors,” Clapper said. “I’m not sure Kim Jong Un has that around him…other than medal-bedecked generals dutifully writing down what the leader says.”
But the former national intelligence chief also said he doesn’t think Kim Jong Un is crazy.
“North Koreans are very rational,” Clapper said. “Whatever you want to say about the North Koreans, they’re consistent. I do think they understand the implications of dropping a missile on Guam. If they do something kinetic, they understand what the implications are.”
Clapper also said an interest section or a kind of permanent presence in Pyongyang could serve a purpose to prevent tragedies like the death of Otto Warmbier.
The former U.S. official, unlike proponents of isolating Pyongyang, said there might be government bureaucrats in North Korea who are open to change.
Clapper, who visited Pyongyang on a mission to free U.S. detainees in 2014, said in an informal conversation at least one official expressed a different sentiment than the bellicose rhetoric of North Korea propaganda.
“As I was leaving the official told me, ‘I’ve been to Seoul and I’ve seen what’s there. I hope one day we will reunify’,” Clapper said.
By Elizabeth Shim