Dealing with North Korea's nuclear ambitions since 2002 has been strongly influenced by a crisis-making dynamic on the part of North Korea: North Korea "drops a bomb" and then waits to see whether the US will engage it bilaterally and give it the assurances that it seeks. This dynamic began with North Korea's admission of having violated the terms of a 1994 agreement, escalated with its withdrawal from the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and then came the announcement that it had achieved a nuclear capability.
After two years of dialogue in the context of the "six party" talks - and another year in which these talks were stalled - North Korea's crisis-making technique culminated in the missile tests of last summer (significantly carried out on the 4th of July), and finally its nuclear test explosion of October 9th.
This latest crisis - the most blatant and extreme so far - seems to have sparked some new movement. It began with the immediate UN resolution on sanctions, which in turn led North Korea to agree in late October to resume the six party talks. On December 18th a sixth round of the talks was initiated, but ended without results.
A critical turning point seems to have come in January, in the bilateral US-North Korean meeting that was held in Berlin. Not much information was disclosed from this meeting, but as The Washington Post reported earlier this month, the US offered "unspecified concessions." And following this meeting, new hopes for a breakthrough became a dominant theme in most media reports. There was a sense that something significant had happened, and a new round of six party talks was scheduled for early February.
The negotiations began last Thursday with high hopes, but then suffered (the usual) setbacks due to North Korean demands regarding the specifics of the economic and energy aid package that it would receive in return for ceasing its nuclear activities. Finally, it was reported that agreement on an accord had been reached: basically that North Korea would be provided with approximately $400 million in fuel oil and aid, and in return would start a permanent disabling of its nuclear facilities and allow inspectors back into the country.
While cautious optimism may be warranted, we should be wary of seeing this as the final word. First of all, many important details have been left to future negotiations. And we've been there too many times before - most significantly in September 2005 when North Korea reneged on a deal to give up its nuclear program almost immediately after it was achieved, due to its anger over US financial sanctions imposed on a bank in Macao that North Korea was using for illicit financial transactions. The result of the long years of mutual animosity is that both sides are highly distrustful of each other. If the deal does prove successful, historians will surely debate whether this agreement could not have been achieved years ago.
Beyond North Korea itself, is there any lesson from this latest experience for dealing with Iran? We might conclude that strong sanctions proved effective, but what emerged as the more important factor for North Korea were the bilateral negotiations that the US agreed to. And sanctions may not necessarily work the same way for Iran. Finally, Iran's nuclear ambitions and strategies are being pursued in a very different context - to attain regional power and influence. A non-military solution to the Iranian challenge - assuming one exists - will have to be tailored to the specifics of that case.
The authors are senior research associates at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).