Commentators on both sides of the political spectrum have used North Korea and Iran interchangeably to buttress their position on the negotiations to corral Iran’s nuclear weapons ambition. Some argue that the Iran deal will not work just like the 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea. Others argue that the Iranian deal could serve as a lesson to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
Regardless of the alleged merits or failures of the agreement with Iran, there are too many differences between the nuclear weapons threat confronting the United States from Iran and North Korea, respectively, to draw relevant analogies. Plus, after the conclusion of the Iran deal, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said that his country “is not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.” In other words, it is doubtful that the Obama Administration can replicate its success in concluding a nuclear agreement with North Korea based on its effort with Iran. In fact, the lessons learned from the experience with North Korea helped to shape the talks with Iran.
What are these differences?
Nature of the regime: while both Iran and North Korea have repressive governments, Iran is a theocratic regime based on a major world religion while North Korea is a totalitarian regime based on one person or family, similar to a crime syndicate. Iran is also relatively speaking more open to outside influences than North Korea. According to Freedom House, Iran is placed in the “Not Free” ranking (#6) among the nations of the world; however, North Korea is listed among the “Worst of the Worst” nations (#7). Many Iranians have access to information about the outside world and a majority have a positive view of the American people. In contrast, there is absolutely no room for dissent in North Korea and the vast majority of North Koreans are completely isolated from the rest of the world. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans languish in prison labor camps for vague offenses against the state.
Status of nuclear weapon development: most analysts conclude that Iran has not yet perfected the technology to make a nuclear weapon. However, back in 1994, North Korea had already developed a nuclear weapons program and was suspected of having one to two weapons, then withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006 while in the midst of the international negotiations designed to eliminate this development. Thus, U.S. diplomats were dealing with a fundamentally different negotiation scenario with North Korea than Iran.
Stance on nuclear weapons: Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2012 that Iran will “never go after” stockpiling nuclear weapons and believes “using such weapons are a great sin. While this may be a misleading statement by the Iranian leader, it is abundantly clear that North Korea is misleading no one – it has no intention of giving up its nuclear stockpile, even to the point of enshrining its declaration as a nuclear weapon state in its constitution. North Korea has even threatened to use nuclear weapons in a first strike capability.
Connectivity to the global economy: Iran was connected to the global economy and suffered immensely from the increased outside pressure from heightened sanctions. These sanctions sent the Iranian economy into a tailspin and compelled the Iranian regime to enter into negotiations to put limits on its nuclear ambitions in order to receive relief from sanctions. In contrast, North Korea is almost completely isolated from the global economy and sanctions have little impact on their economy. In fact, China accounts for 90 percent of its global trade; without this trade, North Korea would be a classic example of autarky. Unless China reduces its economic interactions with North Korea and fully cooperates with the imposition of multilateral sanctions, any additional unilateral sanctions will serve little purpose.
Military option: the military option was never completely taken off the table with respect to Iran. Even if the United States did not launch any strikes to take out Iranian nuclear facilities, other actors in the region may have taken it upon themselves to end the Iranian nuclear threat. However, because the capital city and largest population center of South Korea – Seoul – is in such close proximity to the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea, any pre-emptive strike to try to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear facilities would most likely result in some conventional retaliation by the North against the South. There is no doubt that if North Korea initiated any large-scale offensive military action, particularly using any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces would quickly and decisively end the brutal North Korean regime. But no serious policymaker advocates military strikes (outside of preventing an imminent launch of a nuclear missile from North Korean territory) to pro-actively deal with the North Korean nuclear threat.
Existing deal: There is already a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea. In 2005, six nations — the U.S., South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Russia, and China – successfully negotiated a Joint Statement where North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons and programs while the U.S. provided a security guarantee that it would not attack or invade North Korea. In addition, the U.S. agreed to negotiate a separate peace treaty to formally conclude the Korean War. North Korea got everything it wanted in the talks. There is no need to renegotiate these matters. Basically, all North Korea has to do is to abide by its existing commitments that it made to the international community 10 years ago. There was no similar multilateral agreement with Iran prior to the completion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached on July 14, 2015.
While there may be some lessons that can be learned from the Iranian experience to apply in the North Korean context, almost all the lessons have flowed the other direction. From the JCPOA, it appears that U.S. negotiators learned from the experience with North Korea to limit the opportunity for mischief on the part of the Iranians. Iran could still violate the terms and the international community may not have the will to strictly enforce the agreement. However, the monitoring and verification provisions of the JCPOA demonstrate that if North Korea does express a willingness to return to the table, these sections are what they should expect to make sure that they do not go back on their word again.
Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from U.S. Embassy Vienna’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.