Taking their cue from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opponents of a P5+1-Iran agreement have taken to using the example of North Korea’s nuclear program to argue against signing a deal with Iran.
According to this argument, the U.S. and its allies in Asia engaged North Korea for years and even signed agreements where North Korea suspended (but did not dismantle) its plutonium program. Despite this diplomatic outreach, once Pyongyang had increased its capabilities enough, it withdrew from the talks and built and tested nuclear weapons.
The comparison to North Korea, which has spread to usually insightful observers, fails on at least two counts. First, and most obvious, Iran isn’t North Korea… by a long shot. Pyongyang is currently ruled by a Stainlist dictatorship who cannot open its borders without putting the political regime in jeopardy. By contrast, Iran is fairly cosmopolitan (particularly in relation to its neighbors), with political elites and a society that prides itself on international engagement.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
These differences are not just the product of the current political systems in each country — though those are important — but also speak to deeper, more enduring differences between North Korea and Iran. Specifically, North Korea is located on the sparsely-populated northern half of a peninsula that has historically meant its inhabitants have lived relatively insulated lives, except for China and today’s South Korea. The contrast with Iran could not be starker. The Iranian plateau is at the center of no less than three separate regions, plus Russia. Its history is chock-full of interaction with the outside world, for better or for worse.
It therefore isn’t entirely unnatural or ahistorical for North Korea to be economically backward and heavily reliant on its giant northern neighbor, although these characteristics are exacerbated greatly by the Kim regime and its unnatural division from the South. The extent to which Iran is isolated from the wider world — which tends to be greatly exaggerated in the U.S. — is entirely unnatural and ahistorical. After a decade of trying to fight the forces of history and geography, the leaders of the Islamic Republic realized by the 1990s that Iran simply couldn’t be a reclusive state.
Iran has since sought to integrate fully into the international community, and has largely succeeded save for its continued antagonistic relationship with the United States. This antagonistic relationship with the United States is where the similarities between Iran and North Korea begin and end.
More importantly, Netanyahu and those using the North Korean case to argue for more sanctions instead of a deal with Iran have clearly not studied the history of the DPRK case. The North Korean case in fact underscores that engagement can work, while imposing additional sanctions during diplomacy is a bankrupt strategy that will lead to a nuclear Iran.
This is clearly demonstrated by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration’s North Korean diplomacy. Clinton’s began in earnest with the October 1994 Agreed Framework in which Pyongyang pledged to, according to Arms Control Today, “freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear facilities… allow the IAEA to verify compliance through ‘special inspections’… [and] allow 8,000 spent nuclear reactor fuel elements to be removed to a third country.” In return, the U.S., South Korea and Japan were supposed to build the DPRK two light water reactors, and deliver heavy oil to North Korea. U.S. sanctions remained in place during this period but the agreement ultimately called for normalizing U.S.-North Korean ties. The following month the IAEA confirmed North Korea’s compliance on the nuclear facilities.
However, neither side implemented the deal very efficiently, and the U.S. began sanctioning North Korea over its missile programs nearly immediately, which finally led Pyongyang to test missiles in 1998.
But Clinton responded to this by revamping engagement, including appointing former Defense Secretary William Perry to serve as special coordinator for North Korea policy. This led to a flurry of negotiations between the two sides, and Perry and his team visited Pyongyang in May 1999. That same month U.S. inspectors were given access to North Korea’s nuclear sites and confirmed Pyongyang’s compliance with the Agreed Framework. Then, in September 1999, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile testing in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions, which it honored until 2006.
After the historic North-South Korea summit in June 2000, the U.S. relaxed sanctions again, and a new era of engagement continued. In October of 2000, North Korea’s deputy leader visited the White House. That same month, Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate a final agreement where North Korea would agree to end the production and deployment of long-range missiles and normalize U.S.-DPRK ties.
This agreement was supposed to be signed by President Clinton during a historic visit to Pyongyang. However, with the disputed U.S. presidential election that year, Clinton decided it would be inappropriate to take such a trip, and ultimately left it to his successor to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on the agreement. Still, the payoff for two years of engagement, after sanctions between 1995 and 1998 had only led to missile tests, was having an end to the crisis within reach.
George W. Bush’s entrance into office snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Many of the Bush administration’s initial policies are well known, including imposing additional sanctions on North Korea and labeling it part of the Axis of Evil. Then, in November 2002, after the DPRK told a U.S. official it had a uranium enrichment program, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan stopped providing heavy oil deliveries to Pyongyang as they had done as part of the Agreed Framework.
This set off a crisis that ended with the creation of the Six Party talks, which were held for the first time in August 2003. Two more meetings were held in 2004. The fourth meeting began in July 2005, and from the beginning included “an unprecedented amount of bilateral talks” between the U.S. and North Korea, according to Arms Control Today. After a short interval, the second session of the fourth round of Six Party Talks was held on September 13-19, 2005.
It was this round that produced the historic agreement that Netanyahu and others have cited as an example of what Iran is trying to do. As part of the agreement that came out of this round of talks, North Korea pledged that it was “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.” But then, in July 2006 North Korea ended its moratorium on missile testing. The following October it conducted its first nuclear test.
So what policies brought the crisis from the historic agreement in September 2005 to the nuclear test a year later? The U.S. imposed new sanctions against North Korea, believing that upping the pressure would force it to honor the agreement it had already signed.
First, during the second part of the fourth round of talks, with negotiators hammering out the historic agreement, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, which the North Korean regime used to launder money. The North Korean regime doesn’t appear to have recognized the significance of these sanctions until after the fourth round of talks ended. Once it did, it mounted a fierce campaign to get them lifted, since these directly targeted the wealth of the regime elite. The U.S. responded by imposing new sanctions in October 2005 and March 2006.
In April 2006, North Korea said it would return to the talks if the U.S. lifted the freeze on some of its funds at Banco Delta Asia. In response, in June 2006, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea announced they would not build North Korea the two light water reactors they had promised during the Agreed Framework of 1994. A month later North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles, ending the September 1999 moratorium. The UN Security Council responded by passing a resolution condemning the tests, and in September 2006 Japan and Australia imposed additional sanctions against North Korea, bringing them more in line with the U.S. on sanctions policy. Less than a month later, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
Thus, not only is Iran not North Korea, but the North Korea case strongly suggests that engagement can produce results, while additional sanctions during this engagement will scuttle those talks. Contrary to what right-wing pundits in the U.S. claim, the Bush administration’s hardline policies are more to blame for North Korea’s nuclear status than are the more conciliatory policies of the Clinton administration.
Let’s not make the same mistake with Iran.