UN Chief Says `Straitjacket' on North Korea Makes Deal Possible

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(Bloomberg) -- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he’s optimistic that the U.S. and North Korea can reach a historic nuclear deal, crediting a toughened sanctions regime pushed by President Donald Trump at the UN Security Council for the isolated country’s willingness to negotiate.

“I believe the sanctions have had such an impact that, indeed, it is vital for them to get out of this straitjacket,” Guterres said in an interview Thursday with Bloomberg editors and reporters in New York, hours after Trump announced he would meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

By contrast, he was downbeat about the prospect for a new nuclear deal with Iran after the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 accord and, more broadly, about Middle East peace.

“In relation to North Korea there is I believe a common interest of all stakeholders,” Guterres said. But in the Middle East “there is no common interest of all stakeholders -- it’s quite clear -- so the possibilities of an agreement is much less obvious.”

One reason Guterres cited for optimism with the North Korea situation is that China can effectively serve as a “guarantor” of any future agreement because of its interest in seeing a denuclearized Korean peninsula and its relationship with both Pyongyang and Washington. The International Atomic Energy Agency -- which has verified denuclearization efforts in Iran and elsewhere -- could also help ensure any agreement is maintained, he said.

Read a QuickTake on why Trump and Kim picked Singapore for a summit

Any final agreement to denuclearize North Korea is likely a long ways off. That process would require not only intrusive inspections to confirm North Korea is carrying out its commitments, but also the removal or destruction of the dozens of nuclear bombs the regime is believed to already have. By contrast, Iran had no nuclear weapons.

“I don’t underestimate the technical complexity of an agreement like this, so this is a process,” Guterres, 69, said. “But it’s in the interest of everybody that this process is successful. I don’t see any -- I might be wrong -- but I don’t see any entity interested in being a spoiler.”

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who previously ran the UN’s refugee agency, insisted that his multilateral approach to the world is still relevant even as Trump abandons international commitments, including the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord. He sounded the alarm over non-proliferation, saying he’s worried that recent events -- including the use of chemical weapons in Syria and by North Korea -- had shaken a central pillar of the post-Cold War order.

180-Degree Change

The U.S.-North Korean relationship has changed dramatically since a year ago, when the two countries’ leaders were trading personal barbs and threats of war. Since then, Kim has said he’s willing to reach a peace agreement with South Korea and have talks with the U.S. about “complete denuclearization.”

Many foreign policy analysts question whether the conditions Kim demands for a peace deal and giving up his arsenal would be feasible for the U.S., given North Korea’s rapid progress in developing nuclear bombs and missiles over the past 18 months, as well as its desire to be treated equally among the world’s nuclear powers.

But pointing to Kim’s singular control of his country, Guterres said North Korea was more capable than most nations of making a 180-degree turn in its policies. And he argued that China could play a central role in securing any agreement.

“China can be a guarantor to North Korea that if they give up their nuclear capacity, the United States will not be in a position to harm them,” Guterres said. “And for the United States, China can also be a guarantor that if there is an agreement, that the agreement is effectively implemented by the North Koreans.”

‘Completely Stuck’

The United Nations chief was far less sanguine about Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s government, with Russian backing, has shown little willingness to enter into the UN-led Geneva process toward peace and political transition. He described the situation in Syria -- a battlefield that includes troops from the U.S., Turkey, Iran, Russia and competing terrorist groups -- as “now completely stuck.”

That situation has worsened in recent weeks as Israel and Iran wage an increasingly hot proxy war in Syria. Israel this week conducted its biggest raid inside Syria in at least 30 years, saying Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards that’s backing Assad, targeted Israeli army positions with 20 rockets. Iranian officials rejected the accusation.

Libya and Yemen

Searching for a bright spot in the greater Middle East, Guterres said Libya offers an opportunity to rebuild a functioning government in the wake of chaos unleashed by the ouster of Muammar Al-Qaddafi in 2011.

“What we are doing now is putting a lot of effort into trying to solve those areas in which we believe there is a chance for peace, and we are giving priority to Libya and to Yemen,” he said.

Since taking office in January 2016 -- the same month as Trump -- Guterres has sought to forge a relationship with both the U.S. president and his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. While not always in agreement with U.S. policies, Guterres has worked with Haley to cut troubled peacekeeping programs, saying the UN’s “blue helmets” have too frequently been sent into areas where there is little peace to keep.

U.S. Funding

That collaboration with Haley helps keep the global body’s biggest financial contributor on his side: The U.S. pays about 22 percent of the organization’s annual budget and as much as 28 percent of its peacekeeping budget.

Guterres made clear his opposition to some of the U.S. president’s most recent moves. He said the Iran deal was “a good agreement and should be preserved.” On the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Guterres was more directly critical, pointing out it had led the Palestinians to forsake the U.S. as broker in any future talks.

That, he said, “makes the negotiations more difficult.”

Trump’s administration had threatened to slash the budget of the UN but has so far held off doing so, partly because of support in Congress for humanitarian programs. On the first day of the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly last September, Trump said his main goal was to “Make the United Nations Great,” a cutting twist on his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

Guterres lamented the challenges of trying to overhaul an organization in which he needs approval from all 193 member states to even cut or add particular positions. Asked what he wanted most to be able to implement the reforms Trump and other world leaders have at times called for, Guterres -- whose term runs through the end of 2021 -- responded: “To have a normal management situation.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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