Iran's Perilous Nuclear Lesson for North Korea

Kim Jong-un sees that the West's response involves more carrots than sticks.

North Korea made international news last week when it declared that it had successfully carried out an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. The announcement touched off fevered speculation in Washington about the nature of the test itself (among other things, the yield is believed to have been to small to have been a thermonuclear device), as well as its larger geopolitical significance.

Largely neglected, however, has been the likelihood that Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test—whatever its specifications and objective—was informed in no small part by the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the West. That’s because the DPRK, a longtime strategic partner of Iran, has watched the latter’s skillful nuclear diplomacy closely, and gained a healthy appreciation of the enormous dividends the Islamic Republic stands to gain as a result.

The most obvious ones are economic. The nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is nothing short of an economic stimulus package for the Iranian regime. Directly, the deal will shortly provide Iran with $100 billion or more in previously escrowed oil revenue—a sum equivalent to a quarter or more of the country’s annual economy. Just as significantly, it will empower a massive expansion of the Iranian regime’s global trade, as eager international partners rush to reengage with a post-sanctions Tehran. Indeed, precisely this sort of normalization is already well underway.

For perennially cash-strapped North Korea, the enormous economic dividends secured by Iran as a result of its savvy nuclear diplomacy provide an exceedingly attractive example. Not surprisingly, the DPRK has—through intermediaries in Asia—put out quiet feelers in recent weeks about whether the Obama administration might be willing to countenance an Iran-type deal for the Kim regime as well. And, in order to make the sale, it has simultaneously ramped up its nuclear activities, reviving global worries about North Korean capabilities and intentions in the process.

Politically, too, North Korea’s strategy has been deeply informed by Iran’s experience. The months since the conclusion of the JCPOA have seen numerous Iranian provocations, ranging from missile tests that violate UN Security Council resolutions to, most recently, the disclosure of yet another ballistic missile base. Yet none of these developments have elicited a serious response from the White House, because—as the Washington Post pointed out in a scathing editorial last month—the administration is fearful of doing anything that might cause Iran to renege on the agreement that has become the centerpiece of President Obama’s second-term foreign policy. The result has been a growing sense of impunity in Tehran, and a familiar model for Pyongyang to follow.

It now has. Last week’s nuclear test, the fourth in the past decade, has been variously described as a technological coming of age and a geopolitical provocation on the part of the Kim regime. But it was doubtless carried out because of Pyongyang’s well-founded conviction, based on Iran’s recent experience (as well as its own more lengthy one), that the consequences will be minimal.

In fact, if history is any judge, they could turn out to be downright positive for the DPRK. After all, the dominant diplomatic vehicle by which the international community has attempted to engage North Korea over the past decade, colloquially known as the “Six-Party Talks,” have largely been an (unsuccessful) effort to cajole Pyongyang out of its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political inducements. In the process, the United States and its negotiating partners have systematically abandoned key strategic leverage through which it might have been possible to shape North Korean behavior in a more constructive direction.

There is therefore every reason for Pyongyang to believe that, whatever the near-term fallout from its latest act of nuclear brinksmanship, the international community’s long-term strategy will once again involve far more diplomatic carrots than strategic sticks. That belief can only have been reinforced by the outcome of the recent Iran deal, which has proven conclusively to both Iran and its strategic partners (North Korea among them) that hope for normalization springs eternal in Washington, and that continued rogue behavior can yield major dividends.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: Flickr/Tormod Sandtorv