Defenders of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic is formally known—have insisted that President Trump’s decision to withdraw has undermined Washington’s credibility when it comes to negotiations with Pyongyang. But they have it backward, argues Elliott Abrams, as demonstrated by the collapse and still-uncertain fate of the U.S.-North Korea summit:
Logic suggests that what Kim Jong-Un really wanted from the new administration was a JCPOA of his own. That is, he wanted a nuclear deal that was time-limited by sunset provisions, that permitted him to keep on developing better and better missiles, and that required only that he suspend his nuclear work for a short period of years. Such a deal would legitimize the North Korean nuclear program and Kim would see sanctions lifted and major economic benefits.
No wonder he wanted such a deal. . . . President Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA was a critical prelude to the summit from the American point of view. Kim had to be fully disabused of the notion that such a deal was even remotely available. The best he could hope for was a step-by-step agreement, in which he was not required to end his nuclear program entirely on day one, and instead was rewarded for each serious step he took.
When the Libya example was mentioned [by members of the administration], I do not think Kim really believed that . . . American officials hoped to see him dragged through the streets and killed while his country underwent terrible violence and divisions, [as some commentators suggested, having in mind the fate of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011]. Rather, the “Libya model,” [a reference to Qaddafi’s dismantling of his nuclear program in 2003 and 2004], calls for complete denuclearization at the inception; it was not a long, step-by-step process. For Kim, that was bad enough. . . .
No one who has ever worked on North Korea negotiations could be surprised by what North Korea did [last week]. The surprise might be that U.S. policy was tougher and more realistic than it has been under the last several administrations.