How the Iran nuclear deal matters for North Korea

South Koreans wonder whether the pact could be a model for the world’s other seemingly intractable nuclear standoff

By Geoffrey Cain

Published November 28, 2013 10:00PM (EST)

John Kerry                     (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
John Kerry (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post SEOUL, South Korea — Given the tumultuous relations between Washington and Tehran, the nuclear pact announced early Sunday was the most significant diplomatic development between the two since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Six world powers agreed to curtail sanctions and release more than $4 billion in frozen Iranian oil sales revenue — in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear activity.

Everyone recognized the six-month deal as just a first step, and there were plenty of detractors, most notably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But President Barack Obama said it “opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Here in Seoul, the deal prompted discussion of whether the breakthrough could be a model for the world’s other seemingly intractable nuclear standoff, with North Korea.

Would the US, riding on the momentum of the Iran deal, go back to long-stalled talks to reduce tensions on this long-troubled peninsula?

“It seems to me that the US is in a position to put more focus on the North Korea issue after the Iran deal,” said Choi Kang, vice president at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and a former South Korean delegate to North Korean talks in the late 1990s.

But he was skeptical that Washington would reach a breakthrough, given North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s policy of pursuing its nuclear program alongside economic growth, an official program called byungjin.

If the tumultuous events of the past year are any guide, it’s unlikely that North Korea will take a softer stance any time soon.

Starting in December 2012, the regime went on a bout of saber-rattling. In four months, Pyongyang launched a satellite (demonstrating long-range missile capability), tested a nuclear device in response to expanded UN sanctions, threatened war against Seoul and Washington, and then temporarily closed down a jointly run industrial zone at Kaesong just north of the South-North border.

Some South Korean and American policymakers are fatigued by years of negotiations, citing North Korea’s apparent unwillingness to disarm.

For nearly two decades, the hermit kingdom has repeatedly joined and then withdrawn from various pacts, making clear its intentions to continue pursuing its weapons program. The most recent round of failed negotiations — called the “six-party talks” involving the US, Russia, JapanChina, South Korea, and North Korea — collapsed in 2009, with no sustained dialogue since then.

The West has cited repeated provocations. South Korea, once so optimistic about peaceful reunification that it disbursed massive amounts of humanitarian aid to the North, felt burned by underground atomic tests, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.

Just over three years ago, Seoul also accused the regime of torpedoing a naval corvette and then shelling an island, two incidents that together left 50 South Koreans dead. By the time Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011, North-South relations were already at a nadir.

Before the success in Iran can come to North Korea, serious changes will be needed in how the regime conducts itself, experts say. “There are lessons to be learned from the Iran deal,” Choi Kang said. “Iran needed a leadership change before it could go forward.” North Korea, on the other hand, hasn’t evolved much under its current leader, who is the son of its previous leader and grandson of the nation’s founder.

Iran was also more open to negotiations, Choi Kang said.

Moreover, the US has long been preoccupied with Middle Eastern issues. Provided matters proceed smoothly, the recent Iran deal could shift greater attention back to finding a solution on North Korea, Subin Kim, an independent defense analyst in Seoul, told GlobalPost.

North Korea, the world’s most heavily sanctioned nation, may eventually feel the pinch, pushing it back to the table in hopes of lifting UN embargoes, say experts. But given its erratic behavior in the past, it’s unclear whether any deal will translate into to genuine, lasting concessions on its nuclear weapons program. On that prospect, South Koreans remain skeptical.

Geoffrey Cain

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Globalpost Iran North Korea Nuclear Weapons South Korea