False Comparison of N. Korea to Iran

Opponents of a nuclear-limitation deal with Iran often cite the failed effort to constrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But the two cases are dramatically different from the levels of inspection involved to the nature of the political systems as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the lines of attack against the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program is to liken it to the case of North Korea, with which the United States and other powers reached a deal in 1994, the so-called “Agreed Framework”, that did not stop North Korea from building and testing nuclear weapons.

The most prominent opponent of any agreement with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been among those who have tried to make this comparison. The comparison ignores many large and important differences between the two cases.

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Even just a few of those differences are sufficient to show how misplaced the comparison is. Start with the nature of the regimes involved. Iran, despite its complicated institutional arrangements that constitute departures from full democracy, has a political system in which responsiveness to public demands and expectations matters.

The political futures not only of President Hassan Rouhani but also of the Supreme Leader depend in large part on satisfying expectations for economic improvement that could come only from adherence to an agreement with the West that would bring some relief from economic sanctions. In Pyongyang, in contrast, there is a family-led band of thugs posing as a government that has had no compunction about pursuing policies that have caused mass starvation among the North Korean population.

The agreement being negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 is nothing at all like the North Korean Agreed Framework, apart from each having to do with nuclear matters. The Agreed Framework was a sketchy four-page document that provided for little in the way of monitoring and enforcement.

In contrast, the leading feature of the agreement being negotiated with Iran is its unprecedented degree of monitoring and inspections. The final agreement will have an enforcement and dispute resolution mechanism consistent with the Additional Protocol pertaining to work of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The agreement with Iran addresses, comprehensively and in detail, all possible routes to a nuclear weapon, from the mining of uranium to the internal design of nuclear reactors. In contrast, the Agreed Framework was a deal about reactors that did not address the uranium enrichment route at all.

As sketchy as the Agreed Framework was, it was broader than the Iran agreement in that part of the bargain was that in return for the restrictions North Korea was accepting on its nuclear program the United States was expected not only to provide help in building proliferation-resistant reactors but also to provide fuel oil and to move toward normal political and economic relations.

In contrast, the Iran agreement is sharply focused on nuclear matters. Although successful implementation of the agreement might lead to worthwhile dialogue on other topics, the agreement will stand or fall on compliance by both sides regarding nuclear-related obligations.

This broader though vaguer aspect of the Agreed Framework was a large reason for the breakdown of the deal. However questionable North Korea’s own behavior was, the North Koreans had good reason to be disappointed with what they regarded as Washington’s failure to live up to its obligations.

In addition to the aid in building new reactors never fully materializing, the Clinton administration was slow in moving toward more normal relations. The George W. Bush administration had even less interest in moving in that direction; it consigned North Korea to the Axis of Evil and was talking publicly about militarily attacking North Korea before Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and proceeded with its bomb-building program.

The compliance issues stemming from the Agreed Framework point to one worthwhile lesson to be applied to the Iranian case, and this has to do with the care and attention required in implementing an agreement. There will need to be more care and attention, and there is no reason there cannot be, in scrupulously living up to obligations in the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 than there was with North Korea if the Iranian agreement is to succeed.

The experience of North Korea is one of the reasons for well-founded Iranian suspicion and doubt about the willingness of the United States to live up to its side of the deal. (Other reasons include some actions by the U.S. Treasury Department since the reaching of the preliminary agreement with Iran in 2013, and the majority party in the U.S. Congress saying it might destroy the deal once it has the ability to do so).

The suspicion and doubt about U.S. compliance explain Iranian determination to retain certain capabilities, such as the underground facility at Fordo, that could function as an insurance policy should the agreement break down.

There is one other valid parallel between North Korea and what’s going on now regarding the Iran negotiations. One of the most distinctive aspects of the North Korean regime’s international behavior is to make trouble, and to threaten to make even more trouble, as a way of getting attention and getting its way on something else.

The troublesome act that functions as a signal might be some bellicose action against South Korea, the firing of a ballistic missile over Japan, or something else. The nuclear weapons program also serves this purpose: North Korea threatens to be a troublesome proliferator and actually is troublesome along this line, as a way of trying to get material aid and recognition.

The chief trouble-maker during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the actor that has been endeavoring to sabotage the negotiations at every turn, is Netanyahu’s Israeli government. Motivated less by the nuclear issue itself than by a desire to keep Iran ostracized and isolated, the Israeli government is not about to end its sabotage efforts.

But it is now thinking of how it can use the threat of more troublemaking on the issue to get some other benefits for itself. This means telling the Obama administration to pay up or else face continued vigorous efforts by Israel to use its influence in Congress to derail the deal even after it is signed and has entered into force.

Israel doesn’t have the material needs that North Korea does, but it always will welcome more advanced armaments to make its regional military superiority even more overwhelmingly superior, in addition, of course, to the United States providing unstinting political cover in international organizations for Israeli policies.

The opportunities for Israel to exert this kind of pressure are enhanced by its tag-team effort with the Gulf Arabs, who have been making their own demands for more advanced arms. Then, invoking the article of faith that Israel always must be militarily superior to the Arab states, the Israeli demands go even higher.

Some of the Israeli government’s followers in the U.S. Congress are going even farther and urging that Israel be given bunker-buster bombs. This would facilitate Israel being able to threaten a even greater degree of trouble: not just political shenanigans in Congress, but starting a new war in the Middle East, which would not only kill the nuclear agreement for sure but also cause all manner of other untoward consequences.

The Obama administration probably is going to have to allow itself, lest the benefits of the nuclear agreement be lost, to be bullied into playing to some degree this extortionate game. But playing it is still distasteful, and still damaging to sound and credible U.S. foreign policy, whether those imposing the game do so with a Korean accent or an Israeli one.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


6 comments for “False Comparison of N. Korea to Iran

  1. Guillotine
    May 21, 2015 at 21:32

    The real difference, other than the pathological hatred of Israel and thus AIPAC, is that Iran has oil to steal and North Korea does not. The Iranian “nuclear problem” is nothing but a smokescreen. The profits of Big Oil and the Military-Security-Industrial complex, and the Israeli-American Neocons (OK, some of them are not) are what is important here. The thing that most offends me is that these people are using American soldiers and sailors to increase their bottom lines and feather their nests. That should be treason.

  2. Robert
    May 21, 2015 at 15:45

    North Korea does NOT recognize the state of Israel. North Korea does however recognize a Palestinian state. Hence the comparisons to Iran. Both Iran and North Korea are enemies of Israel.

  3. Zachary Smith
    May 20, 2015 at 17:37

    The Band of Thugs (also known as the State of Israel” has already announced it plans to murder Lebanese civilians wholesale in the next war it starts in the north. (current thread here) A government goon there has threatened to ‘nuke’ Tehran.

    So why not give them the largest US bunker buster bomb and some B-52s to deliver it. No doubt Israel would then lean on the ***-kissers of the US congress to change that to a B-2. Highly profitable when they sold the details to the highest bidders.

    As long as that murderous little nation controls US foreign policy, we’re going to careen from disaster to disaster. All the better to serve them.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    May 20, 2015 at 16:51

    Sony will probably soon release the movie “Interview II”. This sequel will no doubt be where those rascals Josh and James go to Iran. Oh, those boys! One more thing, will there be another computer hack job, but this time it will be blamed on an Iranian hacker? Isn’t life in modern times just dandy?

    • Jay
      May 21, 2015 at 15:45

      Unlike North Koreans, Franco and Rogen have both likely meant plenty of Iranians living in LA, so not going to happen–with those stars at least.

      • Jay
        May 21, 2015 at 15:48


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