Commentary: Lessons on nuclear weapons and regime survival 33-year-old Kim Jong Un has learnt

Commentary: Lessons on nuclear weapons and regime survival 33-year-old Kim Jong Un has learnt

For one, Pyongyang will see a failure of the Iran nuclear deal as proof the US cannot be trusted, says the Financial Times' Roula Khalaf.

With the nuclear threat at its most acute in decades, activists from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) demonstrated last month in Berlin, dressed up as US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. (Photo: AFP/Britta Pedersen)

LONDON: To hear Donald Trump speak of Kim Jong Un is to imagine a cartoon character - a "rocket man" on a "suicide mission".

To watch the US president's deeds, however, is to discover that the North Korean dictator is not as crazy as he makes him out to be.

I am thinking here of Trump's expected refusal to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement reached with world powers in 2015.

If you are Kim, you would conclude that you have been right all along: The US cannot be trusted, even when it puts its name to an international agreement.


Seen from Pyongyang, the only way to deter an American invasion has always been to establish North Korea as a nuclear power that is both capable and willing to strike first or retaliate devastatingly. That is why China argues against excessive pressure on the regime.

Kim, says one official, would "prefer to die standing" than give in to the US.

Now Kim will feel vindicated in his intransigence, and confident that his nuclear programme, far more advanced than Iran's, remains the ticket to his regime's survival.

Trump, who likes to keep us guessing about his intentions ("It's the calm before the storm," he said cryptically at the weekend, a statement many took as referring to North Korea) is set to conclude that Iran is in contravention of a historic deal that rolled back Tehran's nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. 

President Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly on Sep 19, 2017 that the "Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into". (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)

No matter that there is no evidence to that effect from the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose job it is to rule on compliance. Or that no other signatory to the agreement agrees with the US president.

Being Trump, he could still change his mind and surprise us with a different outcome. But assuming he goes ahead with decertification, Congress will have to consider whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran or raise the pressure through other means.

Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who had to be convinced by moderates in the regime of the benefits of the nuclear agreement, will have to answer hardliners who warned him against it.


Meanwhile, from North Korea, Kim will be watching. It is not just Iran's predicament he is interested in.

Sadly, he has already drawn lessons from the fate of other nuclear-aspiring leaders in the Middle East, with some of whom his regime collaborated. Those who wavered in their nuclear pursuit or were forced to abandon their programmes met an ugly death.

First, there was Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who developed a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme in the 1980s. In the aftermath of the first Gulf war, Iraq was forced to get rid of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But Saddam played a cat-and-mouse game with inspectors, feeding suspicions that he was hiding parts of his arsenal. Those suspicions gave the US the justification it was looking for to launch the Iraq war in 2003, after which Saddam was hunted down, put on trial, and hanged.

Extensive searches after the war, however, produced no weapons, leading some observers to speculate that Saddam had perpetuated the myth of WMD possession to maintain the climate of fear that helped him stay in power.

Kim Jong Un, seen here in an undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sep 16, 2017. (Photo: AFP/STR)

Then there was Muammer Gaddafi, the mercurial Libyan leader labelled by Ronald Reagan as the "mad dog" of the Middle East. In 2003, after negotiations with the US and Britain, Gaddafi announced the dismantling of his nuclear programme. The decision paved the way for Libya's rehabilitation.

Less than a decade later, when the Libyan revolution erupted and Gaddafi threatened to attack the eastern city of Benghazi, a coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervened and tilted the balance of power towards Libya's rebels.

Gaddafi was captured by rebels and killed.

Kim, who is only 33 and wishing to prolong his own life and that of his regime, is gambling that his nuclear weapons will save him from a similar fate and force the US to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

It will turn out to be a grave miscalculation if the US and North Korea go to war.

But when Trump undermines the nuclear deal with Iran, he also reinforces Kim's belief that his gamble is worth taking.

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Source: Financial Times/sl