North Korea Nukes Breakthrough: A Roadmap for Iran?

The news over the past 48 hours or so about movement in solving the nuclear arms standoff with North Korean has been stunning. Not only is President Bush taking the DPRK off the “state sponsors of terrorism” list but the Kim government has taken major steps to dismantle their program and provide with stringent verification regimes.

The administration fully admits that it is well short of achieving all its goals and that much more work needs to be done. Still, the world is a bit safer today and, more significantly, this shows the way for similar rapprochement with Iran.

The White House — which emphasized that the agreement could not have been reached without the help of its allies in the talks — said American officials would verify the North’s declaration over the next 45 days, a process that could eventually remove North Korea from the terrorism list and make the North eligible for American aid and for loans from international institutions like the World Bank, a goal long sought by the cash-starved country.

[…]

Thursday’s developments reflected the change in the Bush administration’s policy towards the North. After years of confronting the North — Mr. Bush famously said he “loathed” the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and described him as a “pygmy” — Mr. Bush allowed Christopher R. Hill, an assistant secretary of state, to start engaging in full-fledged negotiations with Pyongyang in early 2007, under the guidance of Ms. Rice.

So, what happened? Phil Carter has an interesting thesis:

What I’m hearing through the grapevine is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required so much attention from senior decision makers that it allowed career diplomats and junior political appointees to do their work in East Asia. In essence, the six-party talks needed less attention to work well, so that diplomats and national leaders could get down to business without all of the posturing that goes along with highly public diplomacy. This may or may not be true, but it’s an interesting view of how diplomacy can work.

Steve Clemons agrees that Chris Hill deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

There are still a lot of questions ranging from the interesting issue of North Korea cooperation with Syria’s alleged nuclear facility that was destroyed by Israel and other issues — but when President Bush gave Colin Powell the positive nod in the first week of April 2003 to proceed with the Six Party Talks, Bush and Cheney ignored Iran’s offer of a structure for normalized US-Iran relations the very same week in 2003.

The contrast in circumstances between where America is today with North Korea and where we are with Iran is vital to note. We ‘engaged’ North Korea and blew it with Iran.

And, he notes, “for those who want to knock China around, they should know that this entire process was impossible without China’s impressive, collaborative diplomacy.” That’s certainly true. The key there is not Chinese altruism but rather the harnessing of common interests.

Clemons also asserts, “Barack Obama’s inclination towards engagement with problematic leaders around the world now is now buttressed by an experience of the George W. Bush administration.” But engagement with preconditions is what got us here. Bush steadfastly refused to relent to the DPRK’s demands for bilateral negotiations and insisted on a six-party process that included South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.

But I agree that it looks as if we’ve blown it with Iran. My only caveat is that I am not privy to what’s happening behind the scenes. It may well be that the administration is much closer to a deal with Iran than we realize. Indeed, Condi Rice is currently overseeing a very similar process, involving China, Russia, the UK, and Germany in trying to simultaneously pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and allay its economic and security concerns. (See Richard Perle’s WaPo op-ed today and Rice’s statement from last month.)

Ambassador Hill, who has brilliantly overseen the negotiations with North Korea, spoke at the Atlantic Council three months ago and foreshadowed some of the recent news. In addition to emphasizing the work done by others, including his predecessor Nick Burns and the other partners in the six-party negotiations, he pointed out that there was a genuine spirit of reciprocity. One can’t expect a country to give up nuclear weapons, which confer all manner of advantages, without something substantial in return.

North Korea does not have a lot of fossil fuels at its command. Energy is a huge problem for North Korea, and we would be prepared, once they are out of the nuclear business and into the NPT and have established a record of no-proliferation, we would be prepared to talk to them about aspirations for a civil nuclear program. We are also prepared to work with them on retraining opportunities for their scientists. North Korea has many scientists who have been engaged in these nuclear programs over the years. We’d be prepared to sit down and see what can be done in terms of getting them out of these fields and into other scientific fields.

Finally, and this goes back to the first point I started with, we’re prepared to create a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism, whether it looks like the OSCE, whether it looks like some other institution from some other part of the world, will depend on the participants, I would say. We at this point cannot say with any precision what it would look like, but North Korea could be one of the founding members of this Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism. So all of these elements would go on the table. And what North Korea needs to decide is does it want to keep its aspirations for nuclear weapons in lieu of all these other elements.

This, again, strikes me as the way ahead with Iran. We need to engage regional actors (who have an even greater interest than we do in wanting to forestall a nuclear Iran) on the basis of common interests and understand that Iran is a formidable regional actor with legitimate concerns and aspirations of its own. As Dave Schuler and I discussed on last evening’s episode of OTB Radio, finding the right combination of carrots and sticks will be difficult. One presumes, though, that security guarantees and a solution to Iran’s civil energy needs are a major part of the former.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that this negotiation may well be a roadmap for Iran although perhaps not in the way that you might be suggesting.

    The key there is not Chinese altruism but rather the harnessing of common interests.

    That, I think, is the key. Iran isn’t the North Korea of its region, it’s the China—the regional superpower. We need to continue our active negotiations with Iran and the key is identifying common interests. Despite the mau-mauing going on WRT Iran we do have them.

    I don’t think it’s too late. We referred to China in rhetoric much stronger than we’ve used against Iran for 30 or more years before the mutual relationship improved materially.

  2. c. wagener says:

    Perhaps if we give Iran food, fuel and a nuclear reactor or two plus some fissionable material they too can assist Syria in developing a nuclear weapon.

    Over two administrations this is one of the most incompetent policies we have ever pursued. North Korea has yet to do anything concrete over 15 years and the State Dept. high fives themselves over this nonsense. Sweet!

  3. But I agree that it looks as if we’ve blown it with Iran.

    We’ve blown it? The Iranians have desperately been wanting to tango, but we just refuse or are too clumsy to dance?

    I don’t think it has been noted enough that this makes two out of three for the Axis of Evil. Only Iran remains, but for how long?

  4. anjin-san says:

    Hmmm. Using diplomacy instead of bombs. What a concept. Talking while keeping your powder dry is a good course.

    Iran isn’t the North Korea of its region, it’s the China—the regional superpower.

    Yes, and it would not kill us to treat Iran with a modicum of respect, even if they do have lousy leadership (as if they are the only ones)

    Enmity between the US & Iran is a blunder for both countries. Potentially, we have a lot to offer each other.

  5. Dantheman says:

    Charles Austin,

    “We’ve blown it? The Iranians have desperately been wanting to tango, but we just refuse or are too clumsy to dance?”

    Yes

    This has been another installment in Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

  6. To every question, these is an answer that is simple, elegant and wrong.

  7. davod says:

    “Ambassador Hill, who has brilliantly overseen the negotiations with North Korea”

    What is this a satire blog?

    I just heard that the North Koreans have just handed over 19 thousand pages of data so that there program can be verified.

    I would suggest that this means the US and the other five countries involved have not even reviewed the data.

    WTF?

    Capitulation is what we have here.

    One problem down. Now lets declare peace in Galilee, agree with MOHAMED EL-BAREDEI’s earlier statemets that Iran is not really a threat, and all go home. Yea.

  8. brainy435 says:

    Right, so you’ve just conceded that Iran will have a nuke no matter what we do and want to negotiate from that frame of mind. Hell, why not? Because a rational, established nuclear power is obviously the exact same threat as an irrational, aspiring nuclear power. And here I thought national security was hard. Honestly, how can you be bewlidered by the President taking three very different actions regarding three very different threats? And conversely how could you expect the same tactics to work on differing situations? So much for the conventional wisdom that the President is the stupid one.

    As for missed opportunities and all that crap, we achieved a great deal of what we wanted to achieve regarding NK and Iraq is looking like it’s firmly on the road to stability… both things people said could never be accomplished by this President. So before you all go off on how this President is screwing up yet again, maybe you should zip it for a little while and let recent history sink in.

    What a wasted opportunity the last 7 years have been. If we had been focused on fighting our literal enemies instead of our political ones, think what we could have done BESIDES disarming 2 states and liberating 2 others.

  9. c. wagener says:

    What is this a satire blog?

    It sort of reads like those “Lowered Expectations Dating Service” SNL skits. Perhaps more bleakly it seems like a case of battered wife syndrome to call this progress.

    Let’s see. A promise by serial liars that we can take a look at their plutonium projects. We can’t see anything regarding uranium or proliferation.

    When do we get to send these guys the Statue of Liberty in exchange for some grainy photographs they’ve given us?

  10. James Joyner says:

    Let’s see. A promise by serial liars that we can take a look at their plutonium projects. We can’t see anything regarding uranium or proliferation.

    You do realize that they’ve actually dismantled is scheduled to “blow up the cooling tower of its nuclear plant at Yongbyon” today?

  11. Dantheman says:

    Shh, James! That’s adding facts to the discussion. It makes your argument elegant and wrong.

  12. c. wagener says:

    You do realize that they’ve actually dismantled is scheduled to “blow up the cooling tower of its nuclear plant at Yongbyon” today?

    Yes I do. I’ve even seen the picture at this point! The problem is we have a rather large problem with existing weapons, uranium and proliferation. We have a history of NK playing us for everything they can, ultimately resulting, essentially with our help, in becoming a nuclear power.

    Just as I have seen the picture of the tower blown up, I assume you’ve seen the pictures of a Syrian facility blown up by other means? This is easily reversible by NK. Let me know when their stuff (from both programs) is sitting in Tennessee.

    I really, really hope you’re right and I’m wrong. Few things would be better news. But at this point I think it’s quite rational for me to want to have a friendly poker game with State.

  13. c. wagener says:

    Shh, James! That’s adding facts to the discussion.

    As long as no one mentions that Yongbyon had reached the end of its life we should be cool.

  14. davod says:

    This reminds me of the Clinton deal where they got approval to monitor one place when al the tie the NKs had move onto a different process

    At least Condi has not been photographed dancing with and toasting the Great Leader.