The Iran deal and the two Koreas

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The Iran deal and the two Koreas

The interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is shaping up as one of the defining foreign policy battles of Obama’s presidency. The problems are not only with Iran but on the home front as Congress decides what to do about the deal. Will it have implications for the long-stalled six-party talks?

The Iran negotiations show both similarities and differences to the Korean talks. The similarities start with a history of deception. The second nuclear crisis with North Korea was triggered by revelations about its clandestine efforts to enrich uranium. In Iran, the discovery of a previously unknown enrichment facility at Fodrow and continued suspicions about a weapons program set off alarms. In both cases, trust is extremely low and intrusive inspections will be key.

The Iranian negotiations have also been multilateral, and with six parties as well: the five permanent members of the Security Council - the U.S., China, Russia, France and Britain - as well as Germany. In the U.S., Congressional critics have talked as if the negotiations with Iran are bilateral, with the U.S. calling the shots. But on the Korean Peninsula, keeping Russia and China on the same page has been challenging.

As on the Korean Peninsula, the grand bargain ultimately rests on trading constraints on Iran’s nuclear program for a lifting of sanctions and a re-engagement with the international community. And in both cases, the question of how much of a nuclear program will remain intact is key. In the Korean case, this issue centered on the debate about light-water reactors; in Iran it includes both the reactor at Arak - the possible plutonium track to creating fissile material - and a highly-developed uranium enrichment program.

Yet there are also important differences, and it is therefore unclear the Iranian deal will matter for the Korean negotiations; indeed, it may make restarting talks more difficult.

With respect to the agreement itself, there are both good and bad precedents for the Korean talks if they were to resume. On the positive side, the inspections and monitoring regime in the interim Iranian agreement are very strong. Not only is the entire nuclear fuel cycle brought under inspection but the manufacture of centrifuges is as well. The agreement even foresees the creation of an international committee to oversee Iran’s imports of sensitive technologies.

Another feature of the agreement is a commitment to inspections outside of designated sites. North Korea was able to cheat on its agreements - both in the early 1990s and again in the 2000s - by hiding activities. We knew they had an enrichment program, and learned from the 2006 test that they had an advanced weapons program as well. But we did not know where they were. The Iranian agreement in principle promises inspections outside of designated sites.

If the inspection precedents are good, others may complicate reaching a Korean agreement. In the important Joint Statement of September 2005, the six parties committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. There was at least a momentary consensus that this meant the complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement (or “CVID”) of the country’s nuclear program.

Of course this never came about. But the Iranian deal leaves substantial nuclear infrastructure in place, including an enrichment program. Debate in the U.S. has rotated around details such as how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed to have and of what technical sophistication. The Iran agreement could mean that North Korea, too, would now seek to keep its uranium enrichment program as well as its reactors in operation.

The biggest differences between the two cases, however, have to do with the internal politics in the two countries. Like North Korea, Iran is an authoritarian regime. Civilian authorities are under the ultimate control of the top religious leadership - Supreme Leader Ali Kohmeini in particular - as well as a powerful military and security apparatus.

However, the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 shows that Iran is a much more pluralistic society than North Korea, with open internal debate on the merits of reaching an agreement. Can you imagine North Koreans spontaneously celebrating a decision to reach a nuclear agreement or the press openly debating the merits of nuclear concessions? We still have no signals that North Korea is even interested in negotiating, let alone willing to outline detailed parameters for limiting its nuclear ambitions.

In the end, the two processes will probably not influence each other very much. The five parties to the North Korean nuclear talks are in greater agreement on conditions for restarting negotiations: North Korea needs to show some interest, including a willingness to commit to freezing its activities.

But North Korea has not been returning phone calls recently, even from China. Whatever the political difficulties that the Iranian negotiations face from the American Congress, we are much, much closer to an agreement with Iran than we are with North Korea. The biggest lesson of the Iranian-Korean comparison is that when a country “breaks out” and develops a weapon - as North Korea has, but Iran has not - it is much harder to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. This lesson is the most important reason why the U.S. should move forward with the Iran agreement.

*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard

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