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.