Lessons from North Korea

How to Avoid a Nuclear Iran

North Korean soldiers guard the bank of the Yalu River after the country was hit with U.N. punishment for its nuclear test, June 2009 Jacky Chen / Courtesy Reuters

The new, uneasy accord with Iran looks eerily similar to the North Korean nuclear crisis of the 1990s. Back in 1994, as the Pentagon drafted plans for a preemptive surgical strike, U.S. diplomats convinced Pyongyang to freeze its incipient nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions and improving relations with the United States. The freeze broke down in 2002, however, and today, North Korea is on its way to possessing a full-fledged nuclear arsenal. What went wrong with North Korea provides a useful blueprint for what to avoid in dealings with Iran.

The central lesson of the failed diplomacy with North Korea is that even the best nuclear deal with Iran is merely a prelude to the real diplomatic drama. To ensure that Tehran does not go the way of Pyongyang, the nuclear accord must be followed by the creation of a framework for fundamentally new Iranian relations with the United States, the region, and the international community. The United States’ nuclear deal with Korea wasn’t enough on its own—and its deal with Iran won’t be, either.


The case of North Korea illustrates what happens when a nuclear deal fails to stick.

At present, North Korea’s political Ayatollah, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, possesses about a dozen nuclear warheads and multiple means of delivering them to targets across the region. In another five-to-ten years, according to a recent study by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, he could boast a full-blown nuclear arsenal of up to 100 bombs, and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them.

No one likes that North Korea has expanded its nuclear arsenal, yet reversing the country’s trajectory has proved difficult, if not impossible. Even the Chinese are becoming fatalistic, with some in Beijing talking about their own version of “strategic patience.” That is the favorite phrase of the Obama administration, yet six years of patient sanctions has not stopped Pyongyang from making

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