What North Korea Says About the Iran Talks

Insights from successful and failed nuclear deals.

With recent reports of growing momentum behind the Senate’s sanctions bill and President Obama’s sobering admission that developing a permanent deal to end Iran’s nuclear program is “50/50,” the U.S. domestic front of the Iran nuclear negotiations is shaping up to be costly and divisive. Unfortunately, the international front is no better given challenges such as working within the timeframe agreed on during the Geneva negotiations, as well as larger issues involving the negotiating framework and the region. While many have compared, and continue to compare, North Korea to Iran to highlight potential difficulties and justify certain actions, this discourse has overlooked the larger implications of the case study, such as the importance of the negotiating platform and, more importantly, the role of deeper security concerns of U.S. allies. Therefore, the U.S. should look to the North Korean example to learn how it can formulate a larger strategy that reinforce the U.S. international front by addressing allied concerns, to ensure the overall effectiveness of negotiations and implementation of any resultant nuclear agreement.

A look at the past: The North Korean Case

Similarities, or the lack thereof, between the regime structure of Iran and North Korea are not enough to determine whether upcoming negotiations will fail or succeed. However, the North Korean case, particularly the Agreed Framework and Six-Party Talks, can highlight the importance of allied strategic interests in negotiations.

Allied Strategic Interests and the Six-Party Talks

The Six-Party Talks are an important case, because their structural similarity to the current Iranian negotiation framework (P5+1) means the latter is prone to the same advantages and disadvantages of the former. The advantage of the framework is its success in bringing in otherwise skeptical allies, such as South Korea and Japan. The disadvantage is that it leaves the United States unable to filter out allied interests. The following are two important examples of how the disadvantages manifest themselves.

The North Korea–Japan kidnapping issue is a defining factor in Japan-North Korea relations. Since Kim Jong-Il admitted to North Korea abducting Japanese citizens in 2002, Japan has made the resolution of the matter a condition for normalized relations, and demonstrated that during the critical sixth round of talks in 2007. Perhaps spurred by the growing momentum towards a deal, Japan pushed other parties to resolve the kidnapping issue in return for Japanese economic assistance.

Although South Korea is a proponent of the denuclearization goal of the Six-Party Talks, its support is conditional on how well the negotiations complement its own strategic goal of reunification. Highlighted best in 2005, disagreements between U.S. president George W. Bush and South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun, particularly over the belief that Bush was undermining South Korea’s agenda for “soft-landing” reunification, fueled speculation about the effectiveness of the Six-Party Talks at the time.

As mentioned before, the Six-Party Talks highlighted two things. It had the convening power to bring skeptical allies to the table, but it also bought their strategic interests and provided a platform to pursue them. For Japan, it was the resolution of North Korean abduction of Japanese Citizens. For South Korea, it was the pursuit of reunification. This leads to the conclusion that the Six-Party Talks was a victim of its own inclusiveness. Dealing with the glut from divergent strategic issues due to the lack of an effective filter, negotiations were unsurprisingly delayed and undermined. But if the solution is to restrict allied involvement in negotiations and bring them on after the fact, the agreed framework showed that this option is equally infeasible.

Allied Strategic Interests and the Agreed Framework

Though structurally dissimilar from the Six-Party Talks, the Agreed Framework provides insight into the advantages and disadvantages of negotiating whilst restricting allied involvement until implementation. The advantage of limiting allied input meant negotiations and agreements were reached much quicker. Unfortunately, the disadvantage was a difficulty in implementation due to its lack of perceived credibility in the eyes of the excluded allies.