North Korea and Iran’s Nuclear Programs: A Misleading Analogy

As the international community stands again on the brink of nuclear crisis, some have speculated whether an Iran-style “solution” is possible in the case of North Korea. While Pyongyang has accelerated its nuclearization, Tehran struck a deal in 2015 to relinquish its nuclear weapons ambitions. Closer analysis of the two countries’ programs and differences, however, should temper expectations of a similar deal with North Korea.

Nuclear Ambitions

George W. Bush’s now infamous “axis of evil” speech, marked a new turn in U.S. foreign policy that brought the so-called rogue states of North Korea and Iran into Washington’s crosshairs. This new approach stressed the need for preemption rather than deterrence and leveraging military power over diplomatic options. Moreover, the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review listed North Korea and Iran among the states as potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons.

It was this U.S. emphasis and strategy on regime change that, once again, exacerbated the threat perceptions of North Korea and Iran, leading to the end of the engagement and cooperation mood that had characterized the last years of the Clinton administration.

After 2002, any hope of a breakthrough was dashed with the breakout of the second nuclear crisis in North Korea and the exit of the country from the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), together with the end of the Agreed Framework. This, ultimately, resulted in Pyongyang continuing to develop its nuclear program.

The revelation about two clandestine nuclear sites in Iran by an exiled Iranian resistance group, too, meant that within a year, the world realized that Tehran had built, or was building, everything  it needed to produce enriched uranium. Elected in 2005, the new hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made the country’s nuclearization one of the pillars of his political project.

Dual Track Strategy

Despite the Bush administration’s belligerent rhetoric against the Kim regime and the clerical one in Teheran, attempts were made to resolve the crises trough a “dual track strategy” of pressure and multilateral dialogue.

The Six-Party Talks in East Asia led to the signing of the September 2005 Agreement with North Korea, while in the case of Iran dialogue mechanisms involving the EU member states as well as the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – resulted in the Teheran Declaration (2003) and the Paris Agreement (2004).

Nevertheless, the failure of Iran to halt uranium enrichment and North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 saw the UNSC pass several resolutions against both North Korea and Iran. The Six-Party Talks stalled over verification issues in 2008 – and the U.S. has since refused to talk to Pyongyang unless specific preconditions are met.

From 2010, meanwhile, the U.S. and the EU strengthened sanctions against Iran, adding unilateral measures that hit the country’s energy sector and isolated it from the international financial system. The door of diplomacy was never closed to Teheran, however.

Negotiations went more smoothly after the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president, and when Obama abandoned the unrealistic request of zero enrichment. On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that imposes restrictions on Iran’s stockpiles of uranium and its ability to enrich it – so it cannot build a bomb – thus ending the long-standing nuclear standoff.

Iran also accepted enhanced levels of IAEA monitoring. In return, Teheran could continue its research and development activities in a manner that does not violate the deal. Furthermore, the multilayered nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the UNSC, the EU and the U.S. would be lifted as Iran implemented its obligations. A “snap back” clause was also inserted in the deal to resinstate sanctions should Iran commit violations.

North Korea is No Iran

Since the JCPOA was signed, many have argued that the Iranian experience could offer lessons in persuading the Kim regime to also abandon its nuclear ambitions. In particular, that the crucial role played by sanctions in forcing Iran to compromise should be viewed as proof that such measures work. However, this seems a rather superficial evaluation.

Historical differences aside,  Iran and North Korea differ for a number of reasons – from the two countries’ political systems and internal dynamics, to the motivations behind the pursuit of nuclear programs and the progress of their respective technologies.

North Korea is already a de facto nuclear power. But, most important, the Kim regime has made clear that its “nuclear program is not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table, as it is the essential means to protect its sovereignty and vital rights from the U.S. nuclear threat and hostile policy.”

Kim Jong Un has based his legitimacy on the parallel development  of the nuclear program and the economy under the Byungjin policy. Until policy advisors and makers in Washington understand this basic notion about North Korea, they will not succeed in their efforts towards denuclearization.

This kind of discourse was never put forward by the Iranian leadership. Notwithstanding security calculations and the will to acquire influence in the region, the nuclear program was ultimately bargainable in favor of economic benefits.

Moreover, Obama gave concessions to Teheran that the U.S. has never granted to Pyongyang: official talks with Teheran without preconditions and permitting the country to maintain its nuclear program (albeit with important restrictions) without dismantling any of the existing centrifuges or facilities.

Regarding the two countries’ internal political dynamics, two elements are central in looking at the Iranian system and how it differs from North Korea: the intra-factional dynamics (Iran has political currents based on shifting alliances between important political figures and key constituencies) and the peculiar role of the Supreme Leader, whose ultimate goal is the survival of the system.

In Iran the deal was possible, largely, because of consensus across the country’s elite on the issue. One sub-faction of the “principalist” group, the “traditional conservatives” (in contrast to the hardline conservatives), sided with the reformist Rouhani on nuclear diplomacy, as did the Revolutionary Guards and, above all, the Supreme Leader  Ayatollah Khamenei. All these actors perceived that the costs of opposing the deal were too high and that stopping it would jeopardize the existence of the system.

These convoluted and diffuse power structures are not present in the North Korean system of  suryong, nor do domestic opinion or popular pressure have any impact on the foreign policy calculus of the regime. Furthermore, the repressive nature of the Kim regime, and its capacity to impose costs on its population, make North Korea a difficult target for sanctions.

These differences also explain why sanctions have worked in the Iranian case but not against the North Korean leadership, whose political support base (the party, the military and the security apparatus) is largely unaffected by sanctions.

Finally, sanctions against Iran have been strictly implemented, while Obama, and now Trump, could not fully count on Beijing to do so against Pyongyang. Even if China is increasingly adhering to the international condemnation of North Korea’s actions and the sanctions regime, it is also pursuing a fine line so as not to destabilize the country.

In sum, political, economic and strategic differences demonstrate the limits of applying the lessons of the Iran experience in the case of North Korea.


Maria Rosaria Coduti writes regularly on North Korea for NK News and was formerly an intern at ISDP.

This is a modified version of an article which first appeared on NK News