North Korea Is Not Iran


After two years of intense negotiations, the P5+1 reached an agreement with Iran that would limit its ability to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting a set of international sanctions. With this landmark deal, South Korean politicians were optimistic that it would compel Kim Jong-Un of North Korea to consider denuclearization as a viable option, should the right incentives be offered. But this is a pipe dream. The Iranian nuclear deal will have limited or no impact on North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Why would something like the Iran deal be a “no go” for North Korea?

Nothing like the Iran deal would be conceivable for the Kim family regime. The deal’s comprehensive inspections in return for lifting sanctions would be counter to the logic of the North Korea’s nuclear program. Indeed, the Kim family regime survived over the past several decades in part because the details of North Korea’s nuclear program remained so unclear and clandestine, beyond what Iran was ever able to achieve. The difficulty of authenticating accurate information regarding the reclusive nation has always been a critical factor in the regime’s survival. Earlier this year, for instance, it was reported that Chinese intelligence sources briefed American officials that the Kim family regime now conceivably has as many as 20 nuclear warheads, 14 of which are uranium weapons. They also claim that North Korea may be capable of possessing enough weapons-grade plutonium to detonate at least six nuclear bombs.

Iran was vulnerable to international sanctions, as it relies heavily on the export of oil. Kim is not as intimidated by international sanctions implemented by the United Nations. Deterrent measures such as international sanctions or resolution 2087 by the United Nations Security Council still have not compelled the Kim family regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Instead, North Korea conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013 and expanded its nuclear capabilities. The hermit kingdom’s trade with China is at an all-time high and is protected at all cost by President Xi who, accordingly, continues to maintain a status quo relationship with Kim. Xi preserves his nation’s trade arrangements with North Korea not because he endeavors to support a reckless Kim, but because he does not see another viable option when it comes to safely terminating China’s relationship with North Korea. Hence, North Korea will never face similar pressure on the economy.

North Korea will continue to claim its development of nuclear weapons as self-defense against the United States, a nuclear power with a considerable military present on the Korean Peninsula. From Pyongyang’s perspective, it is forced to continue its nuclear proliferation despite Washington’s repeated assertions that it has no intention of launching an offensive attack against the North. Even after the six-party talks failed to find a peaceful resolution to Kim’s weapons programs, North Korea voluntarily called for resuming dialogue without preconditions, but the United States demanded that Kim Jong-Un first demonstrate denuclearization commitments. Once again, mandates similar to the Iran deal will not work because Pyongyang will not even discuss the possibility of freezing or dismantling its nuclear capability without removing the extended nuclear deterrence by the United States. Consequently, to date, as Kim continues to defy international pressure to suspend his weapons programs, Washington continues to strengthen its bonds with Seoul.

During his official visit to South Korea in April 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reaffirmed America’s commitment to his counterpart, Han Min-Koo, by pledging to deploy America’s most technologically advanced weaponry and cyber warfare units to the Korean Peninsula. Carter affirmed to Han that “[o]ur newest and best things are being deployed to this part of the world. As it demonstrated once again with the recent missile launches, North Korea is intent on continued provocation.” Clearly, as evinced by Carter, Washington is not about to destroy the inseparable alliance it forged with Seoul over the last six decades. Simply put, an American defensive presence is needed in the Korean Peninsula and a unilateral American retrenchment from the peninsula would, at any point, be irresponsible and dangerous for Northeast Asia.

As discussed above, due to such a strong commitment from the United States, North Korea will likely never agree to a denuclearization deal because Pyongyang sees little or no incentive for engaging Washington at any point. North Korea will remain unaffected in its pursuit of nuclear weapons as long as the United States continues to pursue what it sees as a threatening policy towards them. Kim and his colleagues recognize that a non-nuclear state would represent the extinction of the regime. The fall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi taught Kim that losing his status as the ruler of a nuclear state would jeopardize his survival and power. Kim’s vow is to protect the Juche philosophy, a self-reliance ideology developed by his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, and nuclear capabilities have afforded him the luxury of a stable reign. Along the same lines, Kim’s nuclear brinksmanship has helped North Korea to maintain a robust defense posture, which acts as the buffer against outside powers and supports Kim’s security interests. With this in mind, North Korea will unquestionably continue its provocative rhetoric, build more nuclear bombs, and conduct further nuclear tests.

Even if the Iranian nuclear agreement is successfully implemented and honored by participating members, Kim will not abandon his nuclear weapons and negotiate with the United States. Policymakers such as Sydney Seiler, U.S. Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks may think that the historic deal with Iran could send a positive signal — “Washington’s willingness to engage countries with whom the United States had long-standing differences” — to Pyongyang. However, the international community would be wasting time with a failed state that will most certainly never come out of its isolation while it remains under its current leadership and form of government. Undeniably, the security concerns regarding the Korean Peninsula seem to limit America’s options and serve as the overriding influence in Washington’s foreign policy towards North Korea, both now and in the foreseeable future.

Accordingly, we may need to try a different approach with respect to Kim and his nuclear state. South Korean lawmaker Hwang Jin-Ha suggested that China provide its version of a security guarantee of extended deterrence in exchange for Pyongyang giving up its nuclear programs. Under such a plan, North Korea would fall under China’s nuclear umbrella and it would reinforce the assurance of stout defense against any real or perceived threats. Realistically, the chance of this occurring is unlikely, but it is worth a try when the international community suggests identical yet wasteful measures every time. That said, anything within reason regarding nuclear North Korea is worth trying, especially when we are aiming to build a peaceable tomorrow out of today’s era of uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula, and by extension, the world society.


Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army. He holds a BS from West Point and an MA from Columbia University. He has served for eight years as an intelligence officer, and is currently serving as a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region.


Photo credit: Tormod Sandtorv