Flashpoints | Security

The Road to a Nuclear Breakout: Comparing Iran and North Korea

There are enough disturbing parallels between Pyongyang and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions that the latter’s recent threat to leave the NPT needs to be decisively addressed.

By Nah Liang Tuang for
The Road to a Nuclear Breakout: Comparing Iran and North Korea
Credit: W. Keith Luse, Senior Professional Staff Member, U.S. Senate

Even though North Korea and Iran differ like the proverbial chalk and cheese, there are enough fundamental similarities pertaining to their nuclear ambitions to derive worrying predictive value from Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development. Correspondingly, Tehran’s recent threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should not be taken lightly.

On January 20, Iran threatened to withdraw from the NPT if Britain, France, and Germany referred Tehran to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UNSC along with Germany) and EU. In a nutshell, the JCPOA offered Iran access to global trade with the lifting of economically isolative sanctions, as long as Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program.

Following U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 due to President Donald Trump’s objections, and the subsequent re-imposition of U.S. unilateral sanctions, Tehran had resumed the enrichment of uranium beyond the limits agreed to in the JCPOA. Since uranium enriched beyond a certain threshold can be used in the critical cores of nuclear warheads, London, Paris, and Berlin have initiated procedures for referring Tehran’s behavior to the UNSC. This could lead to the re-imposition of UN-wide sanctions, which nearly strangled Iran’s economy before the JCPOA was signed.

Iran remaining an NPT signatory is significant because it contractually obligates Tehran to refrain from acquiring nuclear munitions in return for being allowed to pursue nuclear energy technology, with such technology being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN organization.

Comparing the nuclear histories of North Korea and Iran, one arguably sees an analogous pattern that begins with declarations of nuclear nonproliferation, evolves into a hopeful phase where denuclearization deals are signed, and regrettably deteriorates into confrontation and nuclear escalation.

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Examining North Korea today, it may be hard to believe that the Kim regime once committed itself to non-nuclear status. Yet the 1991 “Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” signed between Pyongyang and Seoul, saw each side pledge not to possess nuclear weapons or the means to process fissile material. This declaration is important because security and economic reasons both went against a North Korean signing. For instance, by 1991 the military technological gap favoring the South had widened considerably, and it would have been illogical for Pyongyang to rule out a nuclear equalizer. Also, losing Soviet patronage in the aftermath of the Cold War increased the value of a nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip to win economic aid, but the joint declaration said nothing about South Korea granting economic concessions.

As for Iran, the theocratic leadership had a unique take on nuclear nonproliferation ideology. To them, nuclear weapons help to reinforce great power dominance and promote imperialistic influence over smaller states. Accordingly, since nuclear weapons are symbols of colonialism, Iran saw an obligation to oppose them just as it opposed the supposedly arrogant and oppressive Western states, so as to help international underdogs. It was even argued that as great powers held back weak states, global nuclear disarmament could limit the former’s power and enable the latter to progress. Hence, the pursuit of nuclear weapons would reek of hypocrisy.

When analyzing both nations, we can also see they started off with promising denuclearization or nuclear limiting agreements with external powers. For the Kim regime, it signed the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States. Under that deal, North Korea would receive nuclear proliferation-resistant Light Water Reactors (LWRs), conventional fuel oil, and U.S. formal assurances against the threat and use of nuclear weapons in return for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear program, complying with all IAEA requirements, and completely dismantling all North Korean nuclear facilities upon completion of LWR construction.

However, in October 2002 the United States discovered that the North was circumventing the Agreed Framework via a clandestine highly enriched uranium (HEU) program. Despite Pyongyang’s denials, the Kim regime later declared that North Korea was justified in pursuing HEU capabilities and was withdrawing from the Agreed Framework. Subsequently, in December 2002 North Korea withdrew from the NPT, started producing plutonium for nuclear arms, and declared itself a nuclear weapons state.

Turning to Tehran, its “grand bargain” with the P5+1 and EU, the JCPOA, obligated Iran to never acquire nuclear weapons; curtail most of its uranium enrichment capacity and limit remaining enrichment quality to that suitable for only nuclear power generation; drastically limit its uranium stockpile; shelve uranium enrichment research; and modify its nuclear reactor to preclude the production of weapons-grade plutonium, while exporting all spent nuclear fuel (which can be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium).

In return, UN Security Council resolutions implementing sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear program would be terminated, all EU economic and financial sanctions linked to the aforementioned nuclear program would be abolished, and all U.S. sanctions designed to penalize Iran over its nuclear activities would be revoked. Following Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Tehran has since distanced itself from the agreement and recently threatened to remove itself from the NPT. If this comes to pass, it would eliminate any legal obligation on Iran to limit its nuclear program, making a future Iranian atomic bomb a distinct reality.

History tells us that in 2006, within four years of North Korea’s exit from the NPT, it detonated its first nuclear device, creating a source of instability in Northeast Asia that persists to today. While no one can predict when or even if Iran will leave the NPT, the probability of Iranian nuclear warheads making their international debut increases exponentially if Tehran takes that path. Consequently, as Iran’s nuclear negotiating partners, the P5+1 and EU need to reach a rapid consensus on a unified stance: Either commit to a dedicated negotiated compromise that restores Iranian adherence to nuclear nonproliferation, or steadfastly uphold a massive pressure campaign of watertight sanctions. In either case, the tools, mechanisms, and approaches are well known with clearly envisaged policy objectives.

The world cannot dither or resort to wishful thinking vis-à-vis Tehran’s possible nuclear ambitions. Quick and decisive action is needed. We already have one nuclear antagonist in Asia and must do our utmost to prevent the occurrence of another.

Nah Liang Tuang is a Research Fellow in the Military Studies Program of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.