The Iran Nuclear Deal and the North Korean Nuclear Issue

The international nuclear agreement with Iran has generated some speculation about the potential for resurrecting similar negotiations with North Korea. Indeed, the Obama administration’s dramatic shifts in policy toward Burma, Cuba, and now Iran might suggest an analogous gesture toward Pyongyang. But, while a desperate Hail Mary pass is a dramatic end to a football game, its diplomatic counterpart is far less likely—or justified—in the waning days of the administration. From a practical point of view, the clock is running out for the Obama administration. There is only a year and a half remaining, far too short to bring a difficult North Korean accord to completion. Veterans of the Clinton presidency, such as Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, will well remember their inability to conclude a missile agreement with North Korea in a limited time window.

While Sherman and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claim to having been “this close” to a missile agreement at the tail end of Clinton’s term, the reality was that a chasm remained between Pyongyang’s demands and US willingness to move forward. North Korean intransigence at bilateral meetings in Kuala Lumpur in 2000 and insistence that the two country’s leaders hash out the terms of an agreement during a Clinton trip to Pyongyang doomed any potential for progress.

North Korean negotiations are also not in the offing since Obama and key officials will have their hands full for several months defending the Iran nuclear agreement during congressional deliberations. Initiating comparably difficult and contentious discussions with North Korea before the dust has settled on the Iran accord would be a diplomatic bridge too far. Some might argue that Obama’s trifecta of diplomatic initiatives with Burma, Cuba, and Iran gives him leverage and momentum to pursue a grand slam with North Korea. It is more plausible that cumulative US concessions and easing of pressure on three still recalcitrant autocracies would constrain congressional and public acceptance of yet more US conciliation. That such negotiations would have to occur during the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the US presidential election makes the situation even more unlikely.

But the biggest obstacle to any potential nuclear agreement with North Korea is, of course, North Korea itself. Pyongyang’s unceasing threats of nuclear annihilation against the United States and its allies, as well as cyber attacks and pledge of a “9/11-type attack,” hardly create an atmosphere conducive to diplomatic outreach. Not that there was any doubt, but North Korea publicly rejected any interest in following Iran into denuclearization negotiations with the United States. The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in July that Pyongyang “is not interested at all in dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first, [since its nuclear arsenal] is not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”[1]

The regime’s recent statement is consistent with years of declaring the Six-Party Talks were “null and void” and dismissing any possibility of it living up to numerous previous pledges to denuclearize. For example, last year the National Defense Commission asserted that, “Nothing will be more foolish than trying to force the army and people of [North Korea] to lay down the treasured sword” of nuclear weapons.[2] In 2013, North Korea revised its constitution to enshrine itself as a nuclear state, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to “increase the production of precision and miniaturized nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery and ceaselessly develop nuclear weapons technology to actively develop more powerful and advanced nuclear weapons [and] firmly bolster the nuclear armed forces both quantitatively and qualitatively.”[3]

Closing the Door on Dialogue


Earlier this year, some experts interpreted Kim’s New Year’s Day speech as showing regime interest in resuming dialogue with the United States and South Korea and potentially resuming the Six-Party Talks. But by late February, hopes of improved inter-Korean relations and a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear problem had, once again, dissolved as Pyongyang kept piling on conditions. Kim Jong-un declared in February, “We are unwilling to sit down with [US] mad dogs anymore.”[4] The National Defense Commission avowed, “it is the decision of the army and people of [North Korea] to no longer have the need or willingness to sit at the negotiating table with the United States.” The regime also dismissed dialogue with Seoul: “It is only too apparent that no major change or transformation could be achieved in inter-Korean relations even if we were to sit down a thousand times with such government officials.”[5]

Meanwhile, North Korea continues its six decades long quest for a nuclear arsenal. US experts estimate that Pyongyang currently has 10 to 16 nuclear weapons.[6] In 2015, the commanders of US Forces Korea, Pacific Command, and NORAD all stated that they assess North Korea has the ability to put a nuclear weapon on an ICBM and shoot it at the US homeland.[7] In May, North Korea successfully conducted its first underwater ejection test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Analysts had predicted it would be several years before that would happen. Kim Jong-un jubilantly declared the development a “time bomb attached to the backs of our enemies when the SLBMs enter a mass-production phase and are deployed in battle.”[8]

In July, South Korea announced that Pyongyang had completed a new, taller launch tower at its missile test site, which would accommodate a longer-range missile than the rocket successfully test-fired in December 2012.[9] After the South Korean navy dredged up the first two stages of the 2012 missile from the ocean floor, Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin assessed it had an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers (km) and could have reached the United States.[10] Los Angeles is 10,000 km from Pyongyang, while Washington, DC is 11,000 km away. Seoul speculates that Pyongyang might launch another missile to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Korea Workers Party on October 10. Any launch of a North Korean ballistic missile would be a violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

With No Negotiations, the United States Talks About Sanctions…And Talks

The Six-Party Talks have not met since 2008. In February 2012, US and North Korean diplomats agreed to an interim agreement for Washington to provide nutritional assistance in return for Pyongyang’s partial resumption of its previous commitments. North Korea’s declared intent two weeks later to launch a long-range ballistic missile—yet another violation of UN resolutions—scuttled the accord. In response to the North Korean hacking of Sony in late 2014, the White House announced in January 2015 a new executive order expanding US authority to sanction North Korean entities. However, it only included 13 entities—3 organizations already on the sanctions list and 10 individuals not involved in cyber activities. The White House vowed the measure was “a first step…this is certainly not the end.”[11] No subsequent actions have since been announced.

Similarly, Secretary of State John Kerry declared in May 2015 there was international intent to “increase the pressure and increase the potential of either sanctions or other means”[12] to alter Kim Jong-un’s behavior. The Obama administration has not yet announced any subsequent measures nor any human rights sanctions 17 months after the release of a UN Commission of Inquiry report which concluded Pyongyang had committed human rights violations so egregious as to constitute “crimes against humanity.” Obama claims North Korea “is the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.”[13] That is simply not true. The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations imposed far more pervasive and compelling measures against Iran, which was the predominant reason for Tehran to engage in nuclear negotiations.

Violations Make a Shaky Foundation for Negotiations

Nuclear diplomacy with both North Korea and Iran was precipitated by their violating previous agreements and UN resolutions—hardly the basis for confidence in that they will abide by yet more accords. Pyongyang and Tehran serially deceived, denied, and defied the international community. Yet, arms control proponents responded to growing evidence of cheating by doubting, dismissing, deflecting, denouncing, deliberating, debating, delaying, and eventually dealing. Experts initially rejected intelligence reports of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program, its uranium weapons program, complicity in a Syrian nuclear reactor, and steadily increasing nuclear and missile capabilities. Similarly, after decades of debating whether Iran even had a nuclear weapons program, experts now claim that US intelligence will be able to unequivocally identify and then convince US policymakers and UN representatives to impose sufficient penalties to deter Iran from nuclear weapons, all within one year.

Verification is Critical

President Ronald Reagan’s dictum “Trust but Verify” was reflected in the extensively detailed verification protocols that enabled the United States to have arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Debate currently rages over the Iran agreement’s verification measures, including the ability to conduct short-notice challenge inspections on non-declared facilities as well as the “snap-back” clause if Tehran is suspected of cheating. The Six Party Talks collapsed since North Korea balked at the proposed verification regime. Pyongyang’s subsequent exposure in 2010 of its extensive uranium enrichment program would necessitate far more intrusive verification measures than those North Korea previously rejected.

Despite the Obama administration’s assurances of the strength of the snap-back clause, the United Nations has shown a remarkable ability to respond lifelessly when its resolutions are blatantly violated, then only after extensive negotiations and compromise. Hampered by Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the UN Security Council has been limited to lowest-common denominator responses. Similarly, the United States has pursued a policy of timid incrementalism in enforcing its laws against North Korean illicit activities and violations. Washington has targeted fewer North Korean entities than those of the Balkans, Burma, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe. It has sanctioned more than twice as many Zimbabwean entities than it has North Korean entities.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

North Korea and Iran have had a decades-long missile relationship as well as cooperation on nuclear weapons development. The two countries also likely closely followed each other’s negotiations to curtail their nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, they learned that alternating provocative behavior and a perceived willingness to negotiate enabled them to manipulate the international community into timidity about imposing penalties and acquiescence to repeated violations. By maintaining strategic ambiguity on their nuclear programs, North Korea and Iran, like the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, are gaining international acceptance of activities that were previously declared “unacceptable.” Proponents of the Iran deal dismiss criticisms that it allows Tehran nuclear capabilities precluded by successive UN resolutions. They argue that it is unreasonable to expect Iran to give up capabilities that it has devoted great resources as well as national pride to develop. If nuclear negotiations were to resume with
North Korea, it is clear that Pyongyang would cite the Iran precedent and demand terms far less restrictive than current UN resolutions call for.

 - Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation


[1] Jethro Mullen, “North Korea: We’re not interested in Iran-style nuclear talks,” CNN, July 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/21/asia/north-korea-not-interested-in-iran-type-deal/.

[2] “NDC Policy Department Blasts Park Geun Hye’s Anti-DPRK Invectives,” KCNA, September 27, 2014.

[3] Kim Jong-un, Report and Remarks (speech at the March 31, 2013 plenary meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party [WPK] Central Committee [CC], as disseminated by DPRK state media through Korean Central Broadcasting Station and Korean Central Television), http://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/kim-jong-un/kim-jong-uns-report-and-remarks-at-kwp-central-committee-meeting-31-march-2013/.

[4] Son Won-je, “Kim Jong-un Says North Korea Isn’t About to Sit Down with ‘Mad Dogs,’” The Hankroyeh, February 2, 2015, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/676421.html.

[5] “U.S. Imperialists Will Face Final Doom: DPRK NDC,” KCNA, February 4, 2015, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2015/201502/news04/20150204-02ee.html; and Son Won-je, “Propaganda Balloon Launches Again Presenting Obstacle to Inter-Korean Dialogue,” The Hankyoreh, January 9, 2015, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/672915.html.

[6] Joel S. Wit and Sun Young Ahn, “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures: Technology and Strategy,” US-Korea Institute at SAIS, February 2015, http://38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/NKNF-NK-Nuclear-Futures-Wit-0215.pdf.

[7] Tong Kim, “Military leaders: North nuclear weapons can hit U.S.,” Korea Times, April 17, 2015, http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2015/04/137_177255.html; and Jon Harper, “NORAD Commander: North Korean KN-08 missile operational,” Stars and Stripes, April 7, 2015, http://www.stripes.com/news/norad-commander-north-korean-kn-08-missile-operational-1.338909.

[8] “A Sputnik Moment?” Joongang Ilbo, May 11, 2015, http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3004021.

[9] “North Korea Upgrades Missile Tower for Possible Launch,” Reuters, July 22, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/north-korea-upgrades-missile-tower-possible-rocket-launch-yonhap-n396361.

[10] “N. Korea Rocket Could Fly 10,000 km,” Chosun Ilbo, April 16, 2012, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2012/04/16/2012041601302.html.

[11] “U.S. sanctions North Korea over Sony hacking,” Dallas Morning News, January 2, 2015, http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20150102-u.s.-sanctions-north-korea-over-sony-hacking.ece.

[12] Choe Sang-hun, “Kerry Calls for More Pressure on North Korea Over ‘Horrendous’ Acts,” The New York Times, May 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/19/world/asia/john-kerry-north-korea.html?_r=2.

[13] “Best of Obama’s Interviews with YouTube Stars,” The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgJU7ou4zeQ.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in The Asan Forum