Can North Korea Be Next After Iran? – Analysis


President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has raised the spectre of a similar deal with North Korea, at least theoretically. But the North Korean issue is too complex and any comparison with Iran would be inappropriate, at least for some time so long as the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to pursue his country’s nuclear program with no sign of giving up. Iran could have been on the threshold of being a nuclear power but North Korea has already attained the nuclear power status having detonated nuclear test three times. Yet, Obama’s determination to make the world nuclear free of nuclear weapons makes optimists feel that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

Before analysing the North Korean case, let us examine what factors made Iran to concede to Obama’s demands. Does it mean that the differences between the US and Iran have come to an end? According to the deal, Iran would accept restrictions on its nuclear program for the next 10 to 15 years. That gives hope to Obama that Iran would be a different country, notwithstanding differences with the US, which are unlikely to go away so soon. However, Obama’s optimism is based on the fact that those under 35 years of age seem to be pro-American, who, feels Obama, are ready “to move forward a more constructive relationship with the world community”. The increasing numbers of women university graduates are likely to exercise their franchise in Iran’s semi-competitive election system and thereby exercise political power that might prove to be the key determinant in eroding the power of the ruling mullahs that has remained in vogue since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This will be put to test in February 2016 when elections are held for Parliament and the Assembly Experts, the body that selects the next supreme leader. Obama hopes that reformists shall have an edge and assume power.

If the ultimate aim is to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, the question that arises is, can one assume a similar scenario in the case of North Korea that has already tested several nuclear devices as well as launched rockets to deliver them? South Korea of course is emboldened by the 14 July nuclear deal with the US and now urges North Korea to follow the path of Iran in denuclearization. That may, however, may remain as a will-o-the-wisp. This is because the self-isolating regime in Pyongyang is insulated against economic sanctions by depending on China’s support and unlike Iran which faced threats from Israel and the US, does not face any external threats. On the contrary, it itself poses severe threats to its immediate neighbour and other Northeast Asian countries, including the US. Having walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is under no obligation “to uphold global standards” like Iran which is a NPT signatory. With the Six-Party Talks in limbo for the past six years, Pyongyang has only hardened its stance and refused to talk to the US on the denuclearization issue. On its part, South Korea has put on hold its investments in industries in the North, including the Kaesong commercial complex as the North has lost trust of the world.

Pyongyang prefers to remain a closed society and while there seems to be some internal reforms for which information is scanty, there is no effort from its side whatsoever to reduce the nuclear threat. Obama’s bold initiative to strike a deal with Iran and to restore ties with Cuba is unlikely to be replicated in the case of North Korea. The sense of insecurity is so intense that Pyongyang prefers to hold on to its nuclear deterrence strategy as means of survival.

As expected, North Korea quickly rejected an Iran-style deal. The Foreign Ministry spokesman said on 21 July that his country’s nuclear weapons program “is not up for bargain”. If Obama expects North Korea to follow the Iran example, that would ignore the vast differences between the two countries’ opposition on the nuclear issue. While Iran’s official policy is to reject nuclear weapons as haram (forbidden), Pyongyang’s nuclear-armed status is enshrined in its constitution and in its state ideology of the Byungjin line (simultaneous economic and nuclear weapons development). It was easy for Iran to accept limits on capabilities that it had not yet realised but for North Korea, rollicking back its existing arsenals was difficult. Moreover, Pyongyang’s self-isolation is insulated from protection that Beijing offers and this remains Pyongyang’s life-line. So far as the electoral systems of the two countries are concerned, while Iran’s electoral system howsoever imperfect it may be gives its people a voice, Pyongyang’s case is absolutely different; Kim Jong-un is an absolute dictator. In Iran’s case, the US and its allies had military options but in North Korea’s case, the US is extremely cautious to employ force for fear of escalation even at a nuclear scale with possible devastation of South Korea and beyond.

Yet, can Pyongyang learn from the Iran nuclear deal? The truism is that Pyongyang is always paranoid with its perceived hostility with the US. But Pyongyang needs to take note that Washington’s dislike of the Islamic Republic of Iran did not prevent Obama to reach out to Iran. If Washington could afford to erase from its memory the 1979 Teheran embassy seizure and 444 days of holding American diplomats hostage with the intention to reach out to Teheran, one can believe that US memories of North Korea’s 1968 capture of the Pueblo have faded. One can assume, therefore, that Obama would offer a hand of friendship to Kim that would be acceptable to the regime. It remains unclear if Kim would reciprocate Obama’s gesture.

It is in North Korea’s interest that it dawns soon on Kim Jong-un that his choice of isolation from the rest of the world is harming the interests of North Korean people and the country. When the world moves into the era of reconciliation as demonstrated by restoration of diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba, nuclear deal with Iran facilitating lifting of sanctions soon and Myanmar’s return to democracy and integration into the world, Pyongyang’s choice to remain isolated defies logic. Should Kim decide to engage, the world would be willing to embrace North Korea as a legitimate state. The fear of insecurity can be lifted with offer of security guarantee. Whether the Kim regime would remain protected from possible overthrow by revengeful cronies or North Korean people would remain big question mark. But if Kim opts to accept offer of economic cooperation and energy assistance in return of Iran-like a verifiable nuclear-weapons-free status, a peace treaty long sought by Pyongyang could be a possibility. The onus lies on Kim Jong-un. So far, the current Kim regime and his father Kim-jong Il before him have rejected such a deal and chosen to pursue nuclear weapons and missiles as the means of survival. Kim Jong-un needs to analyse the opportunity costs of his nuclear program by looking at the benefits that could accrue should a deal is reached. Economic sanctions and international isolation would also come to a dramatic end.

So, how could then the Iran example applies to North Korea? Notwithstanding the US deal with Iran, it would be foolhardy to believe that Iran-North Korea suspected nuclear cooperation will come to an end. Both have a science and technology agreement and missile technology exchange is suspected to be still on. Hereafter, however, it would be difficult for Iran to conceal any such cooperation as the deal with the US entails enhanced verification measures, including monitoring of procurement of nuclear-related items. Once Iran starts reaping benefit accruing from international commerce, there would be disincentive to maintain clandestine relations with Pyongyang and more incentive to keep its record clean. All these would mean that North Korea would be the only one with the tag of being a rogue state. That seems to be Pyongyang’s choice at the moment. As said, the choice for change of course lies in Kim Jong-un.

The world might expect that the Kim regime would feel encouraged by the Iran deal. But no sooner the US deal with Iran was announced Pyongyang broke its silence and bluntly said that it has no intention of entering Vienna-style negotiations over its nuclear program or over its cache of up to 20 nuclear devices. The regime blamed its need for a nuclear program on a ‘hostile’ US policy. This was in reaction to the suggestion by the US and South Korean diplomats that the North Korean regime might consider the kind of non-proliferation talks that Teheran engaged in. For the Kim family dynasty, ‘military first’ is the defining policy that it would not like to barter away easily. It said, its nuclear program is “not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”Its official Korean Central News Agency said that Pyongyang’s situation is different from Iran’s since it has a successful program and that it “remains unchanged in the mission of its nuclear force as long as the US continues pursuing its hostile policy.” The US stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The US and North Korea’s immediate neighbours are constantly worried that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and active missile program can hit any part of the Korean peninsula, Japan and parts of the US Coast. With the deal in Geneva to lift economic sanctions on Iran and unfreeze assets in exchange for a phased dismantling of its program coming through, North Korea is the only nation in the world now able to “intimidate” the rest of the world. According to Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations how North Korea responds to the new deal “ultimately will depend on whether US negotiators also have a tacit understanding with Iran to curtail questionable relationships with North Korea in these areas.” If North Korea “loses another customer,” Snyder believes, “Pyongyang may take notice.”
The nuclear deal with Iran poses fresh challenges to South Korea as the agreement holds out potential for toning down North Korea’s rigid adherence to nuclear weapons as its best defense against all perceived threats. Though Pyongyang is unlikely to bend so soon, the Iranian deal will at least “give some pressure on North Korea”, as believed by South Korea’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo. It remains unclear, however, if the negotiators in Vienna discussed or agreed privately to address the broader issue of Tehran’s assistance or cooperation with Pyongyang. Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London believes that the realization shall inevitably dawn on Pyongyang that after the Iran deal, it remains “more isolated than ever”. Optimists see a possible relaxation in Pyongyang’s rigid stance and that Kim Jong-un sees sense in the 20-months of intensive talks between the international community and Iran that resulted in the nuclear deal. Ideally, North Korea should see no harm at least in entering into negotiations with the US and possibly much to gain by willing to make some compromises.

There is a counterview on the deal with Iran. For example, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute feels that the Iran deal is a prime example of the phenomenon which he calls ‘defining non-proliferation down’. According to him, standards have been lowered and the deal is a “relaxation of nuke rules for Iran”, which Kim can take advantage of.

Sometimes comparison is made between the recent Iran deal with the negotiated disarmament between the US and Libya in 2003, and the Agreed Framework agreement between the US and North Korea in 1994 with a view to examine if the Iran deal can be a precursor to a similar deal with North Korea sooner or later. First, the Libyan case. The US and Britain carried out secret negotiations for about nine months with Libya which resulted in an agreement on 19 December 2003, according to which Moammar Kadafi agreed to give up his entire arsenal of weapons of mass destruction by either destroying all the component parts or shipped abroad. Few months later, the US officials displayed at Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear equipment taken from Libya. Max Boot writes in Los Angeles Times “Kadafi even turned over to the U.S. for “safekeeping” five Scud-C missiles as part of his pledge to get rid of any missiles with a range longer than 300 kilometers. Earlier, Kadafi had renounced terrorism and agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.”1 He further writes, “tons of chemical weapons and weapons precursors were destroyed”.

The case for North Korea is completely different and any comparison with the Iran deal or that with Libya may be inappropriate. The path for a possible deal with North Korea would remains arduous. The US is unlikely to forget that North Korea abrogated the 1994 Agreed Framework with its promise of light-water reactors in its greed for a uranium enrichment weapons path. By signing the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement, Pyongyang pledged to freeze the construction and operation of its plutonium reactors. The US had agreed to provide North Korea with substantial aid, including fuel oil deliveries and help in constructing two light-water reactors that could be used for nuclear energy but not nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also agreed to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency mandated to oversee compliance.

North Korea benefitted immensely as the US provided $1.3 billion in food and energy assistance. South Korea also chipped in with more largesse and delivered $8 billion in economic assistance from 1996 to 2008 under its “sunshine policy”, though such assistance was not tied to the Agreed Framework. The favourable environment subsequently led to the historic June 2000 summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-Il, father of the current leader. South Korea is still not bitter and ready to make peace with the North. This is demonstrated by the planned visit of Lee Hee-ho, the 93-year-old widow of Kim Dae-jung, the architect of the “Sunshine policy” of reconciliation, to North Korea in early August 2015 for four days, reviving memories of the June 2000 summit when she accompanied her husband to the North Korean capital. Pyongyang still rejoices fondly with the memories of the June 2000 summit and the decade of Sunshine policy when it received half a million tons of food and fertiliser annually from South Korea, until 2008 when it cut off the aid and restricted such programs under special circumstances for “humanitarian” reasons.

It soon transpired that Pyongyang had no intention to abide by its commitments and continued to enrich uranium secretly. It admitted to this in 2002 to a visiting American delegation. This sparked a crisis, leading immediately to the suspension of oil shipments and ended the construction work on the light-water reactors. North Korea left the NPT on 10 January 2003, undoing in single stroke all efforts made by the US to arrest North Korea’s nuclear program. Efforts to denuclearise the North were not abandoned completely. The Six-Party Talks were launched. The US even agreed to unfreeze a North Korean bank account in Macao (2006) and to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (2008). These efforts have yielded effectively no result.

There is no guarantee that Iran would not cheat as North Korea did. If that happens, the world would find itself in a helpless situation. Now we know that North Korea’s relentless surge in nuclear weapon development program has become unstoppable. It tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006 and continued in 2009 and again for the third time in 2013. It is suspected that North Korea may have as many as 20 nuclear warheads, and is close to being able to place those warheads on long-range ballistic missiles that could hit the West Coast of the United States.

In between Pyongyang also abrogated the 2012 Leap Day deal out of greed for a missile launch. With this kind of history of negotiation deceit, the US would be extremely careful for another outreach to North Korea. Therefore, looking either way, the wish to shake hands ought to come from Kim himself. As per the deal, “Iran has agreed to reduce the number of operational centrifuges from 9,500 to 6,000, to shrink the amount of low-enriched uranium in its possession from 10,000 kilograms to 300, and to make changes at several facilities to prevent them from being used to create nuclear weapons. The world ought to watch out as all these steps are reversible as it proved to be the case in North Korea”. We need to remember that “Iran is not destroying its nuclear weapons infrastructure as Kadafi did. Nor is it giving up ballistic missiles, renouncing terrorism or making restitution for past attacks. It is only freezing its nuclear program, as North Korea did.”

The responsibility now lies with the IAEA to monitor by on-site inspections that Iran is obeying to the terms agreed unlike North Korea that violated the terms of the Agreed Framework agreement. The Iran deal may be laudable but there are several loopholes that need to be plugged. Though there is provision for IAEA inspections, the procedures are not sufficient. The IAEA need to continuously monitor few declared nuclear sites. Iran will be able to delay inspections of disputed facilities for at least 24 days, which would give it time to sanitize a site. The US ought to keep track such possibilities. What really would matter is voluntary cooperation. There are several loose ends that provide possibility for Iran to cheat, as North Korea did, and if that happens, the world will find itself back to square one. The US and all other stakeholders ought to take lesson from the North Korean experience and ensure that Iran does not go the North Korean way. In North Korea’s case, despite betrayal of commitment and trust, the world offered fresh incentives for cooperation but these efforts yielded no tangible result. When a conservative government took power in South Korea, things became tough. Yet, military action was not an option because the repercussions could have been too destructive and even the two incidents of March and November 2010 with North Korea’s involvement were not allowed to escalate in view of the inevitable devastating consequences.

Comparison of Iran deal with North Korea runs risk of miscalculation. This is because unlike the Agreed Framework which had no expiration date, the Iran deal will expire in 10 to15 years, which means Iran will remain as nuclear threshold state, which again means there are several uncertainties. Thus, Obama’s desire to make the world nuclear-weapon free is destined to remain as a will-the-wisp. From whatever angle one analyses, it transpires that North Korea is not interested in an Iran-like dialogue with the US to give up its nuclear capabilities. The Iran deal could have been a political victory for President Obama but the North Korean case shall remain eluded as a crowning glory to Obama.

Dr. Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is a leading security analyst of Northeast Asia, based in New Delhi. E-mail: [email protected]

1. Max Boot, “Why is the Iran deal bad? Think North Korea”,

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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