Trump's targeted Iran killing feeds North Korea Kim Jong Un's fears over giving up nuclear deterrent

The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani also reinforces North Korea's concern that leader Kim Jong Un and other senior North Korean officials could, in theory, be targeted the same way in the future. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - If Kim Jong Un needed another reminder about the risks of bargaining away North Korea's nuclear weapons programme to the United States, President Donald Trump's decision to kill one of Iran's top commanders provides one.

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

More specifically, Mr 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," said Mr 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 Mr Trump's nuclear talks with North Korea, just two days after its leader Mr 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 Mr Kim pause about how far he can push Mr 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.

The regime already had cautionary tales such as the death of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, whom the US helped topple less than a decade after he gave up his own nuclear weapons.

Just weeks before Mr Trump's first unprecedented meeting with Mr 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, Mr Trump further complicated the summit with Mr Kim by withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation deal that his predecessor, Mr 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.

Last week, Mr Kim told a gathering of ruling party leaders in Pyongyang that he would soon debut a "new strategic weapon" and ruled out denuclearisation 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 Mr Trump and Mr Kim further breaks down. The regime has accused the American side of plotting to kill Mr 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.

Mr Andrei Lankov, the Seoul-based director of the Korea Risk Group consulting firm, said Mr Trump's latest move will be viewed as a "warning sign" by those who may have read his decisions to meet Mr 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," Mr Lankov said.

Although it was difficult to assess how the incident was being received within the secretive state, there was no obvious change in Mr Kim's behaviour.

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State media published a report on Tuesday showing Mr Kim making what appeared to be a routine visit to a factory site, unlike his late father, Mr Kim Jong Il, who withdrew from public view for weeks after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

US policymakers 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 Defence Strategy published by the Trump administration in 2018 described North Korea and Iran as two "rogue regimes" whose actions were destabilising their respective regions.

"North Korean state media often is implicitly sympathetic to Iran," said Ms 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 criticises 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 recognised today as an unreliable and untrustworthy country".

Last week, North Korean media published new year's greetings from Mr Rouhani, repeating a long-held line that the two states are unjustly targeted by Washington.

Mr Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat specialising 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 Maj-Gen Soleimani.

"What's happening to Iran now must certainly make Pyongyang confident in the priority it has put on a credible nuclear deterrent," he said.

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