What North Korea Says About the Iran Talks

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.

The failure to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework was, in part, due to a dependence on allies (Specifically Japan and South Korea) that had no stake in its creation. Though brought on to help run the implementation mechanism, the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the extended exclusion from the process had irreversibly damaged allied perception of the agreement and its compatibility with their interests. To help underscore this point was a summary of the Japanese perspective by several prominent KEDO experts; “[Japan was]…skeptical about putting reactors in North Korea—too close for comfort if there was a nuclear accident—and felt it had little political stake in the success of an agreement negotiated by the Americans…”

The Agreed Framework case highlighted how, in contrast to the inclusiveness of the Six-Party Talks, that exclusion of allies and their strategic interests still meant dealing with difficult, albeit different set of problems. Though the negotiating phase of the Agreed Framework was blessed with greater flexibility as a result of its bilateral nature, the U.S. would be confronted by the implications of this when implementation required cooperation from allies who had very little attachment to the framework or stake in its success.

Lessons (That Should Be) Learned

Negotiations with North Korea provide insight into the problems of either over-inclusion or exclusion of allies and their interests in negotiations; vulnerability to failure from over-inclusiveness of allies and their interests during negotiations and; vulnerability to failure from exclusion of allies and interests during implementation. This leads to an important takeaway: if failure of negotiations with North Korea is due in part to the strategic security interests of allies, would it not be wise to confront these issues separate or prior to negotiations?


Perhaps the most valuable lesson that can be drawn from the North Korean case is not how or how not to negotiate, but rather that nuclear negotiations comprise only a part of the greater effort to resolve deeper security issues. The negotiating tactics of the U.S. in the North Korean case were flawed. The Agreed Framework’s lack of implementation and the Six-Party Talks’ lack of consensus highlight that failing to address deeper security issues undermines deals. The result has been a series of intentional and unintentional short-term measures that buy time, but fail to denuclearize North Korea. This critique of U.S. policy is not meant to present an oversimplified solution. Merely integrating U.S. allies’ strategic interests into a negotiating strategy is no guarantee of consensus or of a successful implementation of a permanent nuclear deal. Rather it suggests that the challenge of negotiating and implementing a favorable nuclear deal is a long-term endeavor that will rely on a diplomatic strategy as much focused on our allies as on the target state. There are limitations to what the U.S. can shape and addressing underlying security issues does not guarantee that our allies’ strategic interests will be the same as our own. However, without addressing these issues failure is guaranteed.

Successfully negotiating a permanent deal with Iran is already in jeopardy. Several key allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, have publicly voiced their dissent and concerns about negotiations with Tehran. In an effort to gain Israeli agreement, U.S. and Israeli defense officials recently conducted joint military planning for an Iranian contingency. Herein lies the Catch-22: our allies want the U.S. to assure them that we are an able and willing partner that will serve as a counterweight to growing Iranian power. However, acts that assure our allies, such as joint military planning and developing theater ballistic-missile defense, may propel Iran further down the road to developing a nuclear capability. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only deter threats to the regime’s survival, but embolden them to more aggressively assert power in the region, a move they many view as a necessary response to U.S. and allies’ actions. An Iran that can assert itself, through proxies, such as Hezbollah, or openly, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria further destabilizes the region and enhances the perceived threat to our allies. The difficulty policymakers will face is successfully addressing the underlying security issues without pursuing policies that further exacerbate them in a six-month window. Therefore the likelihood of long-term success is relatively low.

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Researcher with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). At CNAS, Mr. Kwon is part of the Asia-Pacific Security Program where he works on various issues related to U.S. Strategic Policy in the Asia-Pacific, Northeast Asian Affairs and Intra-Asian Security Relations. Stuart Montgomery is currently a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone.

Image: Flickr/(stephan). CC BY-SA 2.0.