[News analysis] Could US-Iran breakthrough bring North Korea to the table?

Posted on : 2015-04-04 13:12 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
With Iran and Cuba, N. Korea is the last of the three countries still isolated under Obama, but his presidency is running out of time
 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington D.C.
in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington D.C.

By agreeing to a comprehensive framework about its nuclear program with the US and the rest of the P5+1 countries, Iran leaves North Korea as the only country to remain isolated of the three countries (North Korea, Cuba, and Iran) with whom US President Obama promised to shake hands with when he took office in 2009. Considering that North Korea is the only one of the three with whom Obama has failed to make any progress toward normalizing diplomatic relations, the next question is whether the breakthrough in these negotiations will create a new impetus for negotiations about North Korean nuclear weapons, which have long been stalled.

But on a technical level, negotiations about North Korean nuclear weapons are much trickier than the negotiations with Iran. Given the complicated domestic situations in the countries affected by North Korea’s nuclear programs, pessimism is more prevalent than optimism at the moment.

As Obama began his second term in office, he launched a sweeping diplomatic campaign to resolve knotty problems abroad that he had largely neglected until then. In the case of the Iran nuclear program, Obama definitely changed his administration’s policy framework from sanctions to negotiations at the end of 2013, risking opposition from domestic hawks and from Israel. At the end of Dec. 2014, he abruptly announced the beginning of negotiations to normalize relations with Cuba.

Given this trend, it would seem that we could expect Obama to turn to North Korea as the final target of his legacy building before his presidency effectively wraps up at the end of next year.

But on a closer look, experts point to significant differences between the conditions surrounding nuclear negotiations with Iran and with North Korea. First of all, from a bargaining standpoint, there is a huge difference in the price that the US must pay for a deal with Iran and with North Korea.

Since Iran has not yet carried out a nuclear weapons test, the US was able to simply revoke its economic sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear program.

But North Korea has already carried out three nuclear tests, giving it a fairly sophisticated nuclear arsenal. On top of that, the North Korean regime regards nuclear weapons as a means of safeguarding the regime. It is only natural that North Korea will charge a higher price than Iran for giving up its nuclear weapons.

“From President Obama’s perspective, there is no choice but to be skeptical about whether he could make meaningful progress in negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear program in the little time remaining in his term,” said Kim Jun-hyeong, a professor at Handong Global University.

Second, there is not political urgency either in North Korea or in the US to resolve the issue of North Korea nuclear weapons. American policymakers and experts are still feeling lingering trauma from having been tricked by North Korea during the Feb. 29 agreement in 2012.

On top of this, President Obama must deal with a recalcitrant Russia and opposition from the Republican Party over the nuclear agreement with Iran, leaving him precious little political capital to spend on launching new negotiations with North Korea.

In addition, the US is currently more interested in exploiting the North Korean nuclear issue to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) on the Korean peninsula and to promote security cooperation with South Korea and Japan in order to counter Chinese influence in Asia.

“From the US point of view, dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue isn’t as urgent as dealing with the Iran nuclear program,” said Kim Chang-soo, director of research at the Korea National Strategy Institute.

With the economic situation in North Korea on the mend, the regime is unlikely to feel the need to cooperate with the Obama administration, especially if that involves major concessions. Indeed, North Korea has recently been sticking to the hard line position that it will never give up its nuclear weapons before other countries.

However, with the US media and experts expressing their concern about North Korea’s increasing nuclear capacity, it is still possible that the Obama administration could try some explorative dialogue with North Korea.

Some think that the breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear negotiations will sent a positive signal to North Korea about negotiating with the US.

“If North Korea indicates that it means to participate more actively in negotiations, there is no reason why the US government would rebuff this,” a senior South Korean government official said.

By Yi Yong-in and Kim Ji-hoon, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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