In July, world powers and Iran finally struck a deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. This set off speculation that perhaps the Iran deal might be a template for a deal with North Korea. Although the Iran agreement remains contentious in the United States, much of the world finds it a broadly acceptable compromise. Maximalist demands on Iran were never going to work unless the U.S. was prepared for major military action and a potential regional meltdown. Some of kind of diplomacy was ultimately necessary.
North Korea is similar. At this point, almost any kind of deal seems preferably to the status quo: a spiraling nuclear and missile program with no oversight. As I have argued elsewhere, it is increasingly hard to see how North Korean nuclearization ends well. In March, when it became clear just how many nuclear weapons North Korea might build in the next decade, I argued in this space that South Korea may end up feeling compelled to bomb Northern missile sites before Pyongyang has the ability to obliterate the South in one strike. Hence, an Iran deal with North Korea would be great – if we could get one, and if we could believe them. But that is highly unlikely.
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Iran and North Korea share several similarities that strengthen the argument for a parallel deal. Both are in a protracted stand-off with the United States and have looked to weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent. In each case, Washington supports local partners with strong interests in regime denuclearization and, ideally, regime-change. Both have reputations as a rogue state: Iran and North Korea both have poor records of compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and both have sponsored terrorism. If the United States can hold its nose in dealing with Iran and come to a deal, then perhaps it can do so with North Korea.
This is all the more compelling given the alternatives. Neoconservatives often disdain dealing with odious regimes and suggest that doing so confers legitimacy on them. This is indeed correct, but the alternatives are frequently worse. North Korea is good example. It left the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1994, and the Six Party Talks in 2008. It operates under no meaningful international supervision, despite its record of terrorism, proliferation, drug-dealing, insurance fraud, and other activities. When North Korea was non-nuclear, keeping it at arm’s length and waiting for its implosion was a defensible strategy. Today when it has an established nuclear capability and may be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine launch capability, a deal seems worth at least discussing.
Traditionally, it was the U.S. that set the negotiating tone. North Korea’s asymmetric weakness meant that Washington could indulge various options, including walking away. That is the current American position – strategic patience. Much of this is understandable. North Korea cheats relentlessly; in fact, it turned on 2012’s so-called “Leap Day Deal” so fast that the Obama administration has all but given up on Pyongyang. Increasingly, though, the North Koreans seem uninterested in talking as well. It has vilified the last two South Korean presidents (a usual marker that it is unwilling to talk) and immediately and stridently rejected the Iran deal as a model for its own program.
Why North Korea Doesn’t Want an Iran Deal
Where the above rogue state similarities make the Iran deal an appealing template, the differences in the regimes’ desperation likely explains the harder line:
1. North Korea is significantly worse and more isolated than Iran, so nuclear weapons provide much greater regime security.
For as much as western hawks may dislike Iran, it is not nearly as awful as North Korea, which the UN compared last year to Nazi Germany. Iran is partially democratic, has a resistance movement, somewhat pro-Western youth, and an interest in coming in from the cold. Its elites are not nearly as paranoid and insulated from the world as Pyongyang. As rogue states go, it could be much worse. The U.S. has tacitly aligned with it to fight ISIS and the Taliban; Shia militias like Hezbollah seem tame compared to Boko Haram or Al Shabab, much less the North Korean gulag system.
By contrast, North Korea is 1984 on earth. It is friendless (but for a tense relationship with China), under sanction, broke, and constantly under pressure from a South Korea ready to absorb it should it crumble. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that much of the world would like to see the Kimist regime disappear tomorrow and its leaders suffer deserved rough justice. Iran just does not inspire that level of enmity, at least outside of US hawkish circles. For such a country, nuclear weapons are actually a pretty smart choice (for the elite – not the population whom they further impoverish).
It is now widely accepted among North Korea analysts that the regime’s primary interest is survival. As Alastair Gale has noted, the North Koreans are very open about why they will not deal: the fate of Muammar Gaddafi. In 2003, Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear program in exchange for a tacit Western commitment to refrain from regime change. In 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring revolt against him, NATO aligned with the rebels. Gaddafi met a violent death later that year. To the Kimist elite of Pyongyang, implicated in far worse human rights abuses than Gaddafi loyalists ever were, this is proof that de-nuclearization permits U.S.-led regime change.
2. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are already built and bring prestige to an otherwise irrelevant, impoverished half-country no one likes.
For a state as dysfunctional as North Korea, the achievement of nuclear weapons is a massive triumph. I have been to North Korea, and it is not an underestimation to analogize it infrastructurally to a third world state. When we left Pyongyang, it reminded me of the poorer African states I have visited. The South Korea central bank puts North Korean GDP at a vanishingly small 2.3 percent, and GDP per capita at just 4.7 percent, of the South Korean equivalents. Add to that the inequality between Pyongyang and the rest of the country, and those numbers suggest third world-level poverty for the median North Korean.
It is not surprising then that North Korea would praise its nuclearization so vigorously. Kim Jong-un called nuclear weapons the “life of the nation,” and they have even been written into the constitution. North Korea now routinely describes itself as a “nuclear weapons state” and the weapons as non-negotiable.
The prestige value of nuclearization is high – India and Pakistan greeted their nuclearizations in the 1990s with bombast too – but for a state like North Korea, they are exceptional. Why else would the world pay attention to such a brutal, backward, failed state? By contrast, Iran had not already crossed the threshold. Had it, a deal would likely have been much harder to clinch. Prestige and vested interests would have accreted around the new weapons, as they have in North Korea.
3. North Korean nuclearization cost far more relatively than Iran’s program.
In the same way that the actual existence of North Korea’s weapons makes it harder to give them up, so do the sunk costs. Iran’s GDP is roughly $400 billion; North Korea’s $20 billion. The relative economic cost of North Korea’s program was hence much greater. If the cost of initial nuclearization is constant across nuclear threshold states, then the North Korea’s program was 20 times most costly in relative ratios.
This connects with point 2 above. For a state like North Korea – small, dysfunctional, backward, broke – to achieve nuclear weapons is rather astounding. As a sheer economic venture, nuclear weapons represent a tremendous investment. This huge expense suggests both the depth of fear in Pyongyang over external regime change, and just how much it would demand in order to give up those weapons.
All in all, even if we could trust North Korea to stick to an Iran-style deal, it is not hard to see why they would reject it.