What the Iran nuclear deal could mean for North Korea

Posted on : 2022-09-12 11:15 KST Modified on : 2022-09-12 11:15 KST
The Iran case also shows us that cooperation between the US, China and Russia is indeed possible — meaning they could work together on North Korea
Rafael Grossi (right, front), the director-general of the IAEA, speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left, front) in Tehran, Iran, in February 2021. (EPA/Yonhap)
Rafael Grossi (right, front), the director-general of the IAEA, speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left, front) in Tehran, Iran, in February 2021. (EPA/Yonhap)

“Compared to the Iran nuclear problem, the North Korean nuclear issue is easy to solve.”

This was what Robert Einhorn told me back in 2006 when we met. Einhorn is a former high-ranking official who dealt with nuclear non-proliferation and sanctions, concerning mainly North Korea and Iran, under both the Clinton and Obama administrations in the US.

However, over time, the issue of how to solve the North Korean nuclear problem has become much more complex and difficult. Honestly, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it has become impossible to resolve.

Ever since 2003, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs have been regarded as the two main problems facing the global non-proliferation system.

This all began when the US scrapped the Agreed Framework with North Korea in late 2002. This then led North Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and to go all-in on the building of its own nuclear arsenal.

It was also around this same time when suspicions started being raised more seriously about whether Iran’s nuclear program was meant for weapons and not for energy production.

In 2002, the two countries were lumped together with Iraq by President George W. Bush and were collectively referred to as an “axis of evil” and the targets of possible preemptive strikes.

It’s also important to note that the US used both North Korea and Iran as its main pretexts to push ahead with the construction of its missile defense regime.

A look at these facts demonstrates that if the Iran nuclear deal were to be reinstated, it would definitely have an impact on the situation on the Korean Peninsula in one way or another.

First of all, if the Iran nuclear issue, one of the two main nuclear proliferation problems in the world, begins to see some resolution, then interest in the North Korean nuclear issue will also increase.

Given that the Biden administration has referred to the Iran nuclear deal as a “good model” for North Korea, a breakthrough on the Iran agreement could result in a boost for Biden’s North Korea policy, which has so far remained on the back burner.

At the same time, however, the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue could also end up increasing the "efficacy" of the so-called North Korean threat theory. This is to say, from the perspective of the US military-industrial complex, which wields a strong influence in American politics.

Although it remains to be seen whether the Iran deal can be reinstated, it is important to pay attention to the effectiveness of the multilateral framework in play throughout this process.

This is necessary in two aspects. The first is that the US, China and Russia are all cooperating to restore the Iran deal, despite their ongoing fierce rivalries and dangerous conflicts.

A possible explanation for this is the common belief that non-proliferation is an international standard as well as the fact that these three major world powers were all parties to the original Iran agreement.

Another important point is the active involvement of the European Union in this process.

The UK, France and Germany are all mediating the negotiations between the US and Iran and also making and circulating final drafts for the agreement. The reason why the EU is able to take on such a leading role now is because these were the same countries that were also parties of the Iran nuclear agreement when it was first signed.

Could a multilateral framework then be used to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula?

Although many may have already forgotten, there were six-party talks that took place to negotiate a resolution to the North Korea nuclear issue from 2003 to 2008. The six parties involved at the time were the US, China, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea.

It is necessary to try and push for the resumption of six-party talks since both inter-Korean dialogue and US-North Korea talks remain at a standstill. The Iran example shows us that this is indeed possible and also viable.

Since it’s difficult for the US and Iran to hold direct talks, the EU, which can communicate with both sides freely, stepped up as a mediating messenger between the two sides and, by doing so, has achieved considerable results.

Wouldn't China, who was the chair of the six-party talks of the past, be able to play this kind of role for the Korean Peninsula?

The Iran case also shows us that cooperation between the US, China, and Russia is indeed possible. As such, would it be so impossible for these countries to resume six-party talks?

Could six-party talks be a chance to bring North Korea, which has vehemently been refusing to engage in dialogue with South Korea or the US, back to the negotiating table?

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute

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

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