The nuclear diplomacy of North Korea and Iran

Analysis: A future failure with one country could embolden the other “rogue” nation to abandon talks yet again.

August 19, 2013 22:19
3 minute read.
New North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un

New North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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 reasons.

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 Obama.

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 that end.

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 formula.

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 elected.

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 Washington.

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 tests.

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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