North Korea is no IranA few years back, I met an acquaintance from Iran. I commented on his fresh suntan, thinking it must have been from all the heat and sun of the desert. He laughed and explained that he got it from skiing. People think Iran is covered in sizzling deserts, but it snows there. In fact, the country has world-class ski resorts. I didn’t know that myself. I looked it up on the Internet and learned that Iran has four distinctive seasons. One of the world’s best ski slopes is located just a few hours from Tehran, across the Alborz mountain range. Its ski lift goes as high as 3,600 meters (11,811 feet).
This information was not the only thing I discovered about the Islamic country, notoriously labeled by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of the “axis of evil,” which also included North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Despite strict gender discrimination, there are more female students than male at the University of Tehran. Women now make up 60 percent of the student body. Iran is also a powerhouse in Taekwondo, which is a surprise to us in Korea, the sport’s birthplace. In 2011, Iran took first place in the World Taekwondo Championship in Gyeongju, beating South Korea. Historical dramas are also immensely popular in the country.
My research into Iran was prompted by America’s hope to approach the North Korean nuclear problem in the way it has finally come to grips with Iran’s. In his recent visit to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. floated the idea of applying lessons learned in the Iranian nuclear deal - packaged by global powers including China - to North Korea’s problem. Put simply, the Iranian solution was choking a country with nuclear ambitions through multilateral sanctions until it could take it no longer. Iran’s economy is a wreck after years of sanctions, including a trading ban on its key export - oil. It finally agreed to halt uranium enrichment beyond a certain level. In return, the international community will reward it with eased sanctions. Washington is arguing that tougher sanctions could force Pyongyang to give up its cherished nuclear weapons program as well.
The use of sanctions, long considered as a civilized and diplomatic alternative to invasions and wars, was first employed by ancient Athenians some 2,400 years ago. Wealthy Athens declared a trade embargo against neighboring Megara for kidnapping three of its women. Since then, hundreds of sanctions have been applied, including the Continental System of Napoleon I of France in his struggle against Great Britain to contain the rising power of the British through a trade embargo by European states it conquered. But few of these embargoes reaped satisfactory results. Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and an expert on international security affairs, discovered in his study of the efficacy of sanctions that only five percent of 115 sanctions attempted from 1914 to 1990 were successful.
In order for sanctions to work, the pain must be felt acutely by either the general population or the elite. They won’t be effective unless the pain is bigger than national interests from specific political goals. Sanctions can also be counterproductive if they solidify the country’s resistance and unity.
Based on these premises, let’s compare Iran with North Korea.
First of all, Iran is not a brutal autocracy thoroughly cut off from the rest of the world. People are free to travel. There are over 38,000 foreign students studying in the country. Few houses are without satellite antennas allowing streams of Hollywood movies, dramas and foreign news into living rooms. People freely connect to the Internet. A third of foreign companies operating in Dubai are owned by Iranians. The people are hardly ignorant of what goes on around the world.
They suffered greatly from years of sanctions, especially those of financial services. A shortage of hard currency from a slew of financial sanctions sent the value of local currency tumbling down and inflation skyrocketed. The price of Iran’s staple flatbread, the barbari bread, jumped more than five times.
Iran is the world’s fourth-largest producer of oil and has its second-largest natural gas reserves. Every Iranian is well aware that their country’s income will surge as soon as sanctions are lifted. Although ruled by a theocratic Islamic structure, the country’s president and parliament are elected through direct voting. The landmark deal with global powers was possible because Iranians chose the moderate centrist Hassan Rouhani to succeed the rigid and anti-Western President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
No matter how the ordinary people and elite suffer in North Korea, the regime won’t give up its nuclear weapons program. In one U.S. investigative report a few years back, one teenage girl beamed in front of the camera, proudly saying she and her peers are able to drink a cup of milk three times a day all thanks to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. There have been some changes, but a majority of the common folk in North Korean are oblivious to how horrid their lives really are. They cannot change the government or its policy direction even if they were aware of their poverty and extreme deprivation.
North Korea is already known to have nuclear bombs while Iran is still in the developmental stage. It would be harder to get rid of a mature program than to nip one still in development. It is naive to think sanctions will work on North Korea as they have in Iran. It would be a mistake of a hasty generalization. If the United States is serious about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, it must come up with a real solution tailored to North Korea.
*The author is a senior writer of the JoonAng Sunday.
by Nam Jeong-ho