What Negotiations with Iran Tell Us About North Korea

By Barbara F. Walter

John Kerry and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton in Geneva. US State Department photo.
John Kerry and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton in Geneva. US State Department photo.

Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran over the country’s nuclear program reveals a lot about what he is likely to do with North Korea. On the surface, the two states appear to have much in common. Both were named in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, and both have made clear that they want nuclear weapons (North Korea has them, Iran is close). Both are also longstanding enemies of the United States. Given these similarities, one might expect Obama to be equally likely to negotiate with the North Koreans, just as Clinton and Bush had done during their time in office.

But Obama’s eagerness to negotiate with the Iranians reveals why he has few incentives to negotiate with the North Koreans.

First, Iran does not yet have any nuclear weapons. This is a game-changer. The value to the United States of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state is significantly greater than the value of preventing North Korea from adding another nuclear weapon to its arsenal. Once Iran has nuclear weapons its bargaining leverage in the region increases, as does its threat to US interests. Making a deal with the Iranians, therefore, is far more beneficial to the US than making a deal with the North Koreans.

Second, the North Korea regime is more vulnerable to collapse than the Iranian regime. The United States, therefore, has more to gain by continuing economic sanctions on North Korea than it does with Iran (especially if China increasingly cooperates). One of the drawbacks to the United States of making a deal with either North Korea or Iran is that a deal will strengthen these existing regimes, which the US government would like to see replaced with more moderate ones. We are willing to make this deal with the Iranians in part because we think the regime will survive no matter what. The same is not true of North Korea. An injection of much-needed cash into North Korea could be the life-line that Kim Jong-un and his government need to survive. As long as the North Korea regime appears to be in transition, the US has incentives to maintain sanctions.

So what’s the bottom line? Don’t plan on Obama agreeing to negotiate with the North Korean any time soon. Not only are the benefits of negotiation significantly less than they are with Iran, but the costs to the United States of agreeing to reduce economic sanctions are significantly more.

  1. Is the North Korean regime more vulnerable to collapse than the Iranian one? I thought it was the complete opposite, Iran has a recent history of protest, and does not seem to be so strong ideologically.

    The image I get as an outsider is that North Koreans are still overwhelmingly supportive of their government. Despite the never-ending economic crisis that began in the 1990s.

    1. I personally think the opposite. Iran is a comparatively normal country with a large, diverse economy and population, some of whom support the regime, some of whom do not. North Korea, by contrast, is essentially a prison camp managed by a cult, where the regime is every aspect of society, and is fundamentally unstable.

      Even if the IRI regime were to fall, it is likely that this transition would be managed in some way. The fall of the North Korean regime would be catastrophic.

  2. This article doesn’t explain what interest the U.S. government would have in replacing the North Korean regime. North Korea is mainly China’s problem. It does pose a threat to U.S. satellites, but in doing so it helps keep them in line. For China its nuclear capability and pathological leadership are real issues. U.S. strategists may see this as advantageously keeping the Chinese off balance.

    Also, I must say I see very little resemblance between the regime in Iran and the regime in North Korea. The fact that they were included in a foolish remark by a president who seems to have enjoyed playing the fool for whatever reason does not impress me.

    1. The problem is that North Korea is more unstable than Iran in a much more dangerous sense. It’s true that Iran might have revolutions or hardliners come to power, but there are always some kind of moderating influences to at least reassure us that Iran won’t actually do something genuinely insane and will pursue rational interests in a generally rational manner. With North Korea we have no such guarantee, nor do we have much to reassure us that China can successfully keep North Korea in line. And unlike Iran, North Korea already has nuclear weapons. True, the missiles North Korea has have done poorly in tests, but would you really bet your nation’s future security on another nation having poor missiles?

      Besides that, there’s the international economy to consider. The nations of East Asia make up an important part of it (China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore etc.) and if North Korea decided for some reason to attack South Korea or Japan…. well we’re pretty sure that we’d win. It would also be a devastating war for South Korea from the sheer damage the North Korean military would inflict on the cities and people of South Korea (and possibly Japan).

      Lastly, there’s the problem of what China might do in the event of rising hostilities between North Kora and South Korea and the U.S in the future. China currently has very few real allies of note, if China continues to grow more powerful in the future and keeps to its territorial claims it will probably continue to push surrounding nations into hostility and history has shown again and again that two major powers in the same area have trouble remaining friendly for long. With all that in mind, if fighting ever breaks out between North Korea and South Korea/USA will China stay neutral? What if it’s decided that the only way to resolve the situation is to remove the Kim (or whoever is in power) government and forcibly reunite the two Koreas under the South Korean government)?

      There are reasons why North Korea keeps American policy makers up at night.

      As for why Bush mentioned them together, technically he was correct in that both Iran and North Korea have backed terrorists in the past (sometimes very recent past). It simply didn’t serve any point since there was nothing the U.S. could really do about North Korea and Iran wasn’t really a strategic problem until the U.S. decided to invade Iraq. However you are correct that in regime type Iran and North Korea are completely different. Iran is competitive authoritarian, North Korea is totalitarian.

      Incidentally, ‘satellites’ isn’t a good term to define the nations in East Asia. The Warsaw Pact nations were satellite states. Their economic, military and foreign policy was effectively what the Soviet Union wanted it to be. If the U.S. really had that kind of control over Asian allies we wouldn’t have anywhere near the trade disputes with them we do.

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