Where to begin is a common question at the start of any project, and an
investigation into the reciprocal relationship between North Korea and Iran
vis-a-vis the nuclear issue is no different.
One could start with North
Korea’s seeming readiness in recent days to reopen the joint Kaesong industrial
complex with South Korea, which had been offline since April, and generally move
back toward negotiations and away from the high-stakes provocations that
characterized the first half of 2013.
Why is Pyongyang switching course
yet again, having changed direction between engagement and provocation many
times over the last 20 years? There are obvious North Korea-specific
The country is in a perpetual state of having millions of its
people starve for lack of food.
Its two main goals in negotiating with
the US and its neighbors in the “six-party talks” have generally been described
as: the receipt of large amounts of food aid to avoid mass starvation and
collapse of the state; a broad treaty ensuring the US and other nations’ respect
for its permanent sovereignty; and concrete guarantees that they will not
attempt a regime change.
Another mitigating factor is a June high-level
summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack
The one country North Korea cannot ignore is China, and with many
areas of American-Chinese disagreement set, China likely wanted North Korea to
become a more stable and less distracting issue – and applied pressure toward
There have been inconclusive reports about internal factions
fighting over a more provocative or more engaging policy under still relatively
new ruler Kim Jong-un.
However, Iran could also be part of the
Interestingly enough, North Korea’s first step in proclaiming it
was ready to return to negotiations about reopening the joint industrial complex
and toward engagement was not merely timed to coincide with the China-US Summit,
but was also the same day that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was
While nothing concrete has materialized, Rouhani was an Iranian
nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005, and is widely viewed as
ready to take a more moderate stance in nuclear negotiations than his
predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Beyond the immediate short-term tactical
situation, many view Iran and North Korea’s return to negotiations and
engagement after the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and Libya’s dismantling of
its nuclear program) as a sign that each viewed the American aggression as a
reason both to press forward with a nuclear program for self-preservation and to
show greater readiness to negotiate, fearing possible action by
There is also evidence over the years that sometimes Iran has
retreated from possible concessions after watching North Korea “get away” with
various provocations, such as missile launches and its three nuclear weapons
Commentators debate how much reciprocal impact there is between
the countries. Some note that Iran’s main reason at this point for developing
nuclear weapons may be to achieve greater regional hegemony, while North Korea
is much weaker than its neighbors – if one were to discount the nuclear issue –
and does not appear to have ambitions toward unseating or replacing other powers
in the region.
But it is hard to argue, in the age of globalization, that
the two “rogue” states do not watch each other’s tactics and the subsequent
reactions from the West.
Moreover, while their negotiating strategies
with the US and other countries urging them to end their nuclear programs have
differed, both in their own ways have succeeded in extracting various
concessions over the years while continuing to advance their nuclear programs –
whatever the costs in sanctions.
To the extent that there is a pattern,
the tone of how the two negotiating tracks are currently viewed by most in the
West is once again cautiously optimistic.
But both tracks are again back
to only the preliminary stages of sending positive vibes, and as numerous failed
negotiations have shown, a future failure with one country could embolden the
other “rogue” nation to abandon talks yet again.
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