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 dramatic progress in its uranium enrichment and missile programs. If sanctions don’t work, why not force? Alas, there is no acceptable military option either; North Korea’s warheads, secret underground sites, and delivery systems cannot be destroyed without a full-scale war. Even a surgical strike risks triggering massive retaliation on Seoul.

U.S. President Barack Obama appears to think that the problem will go away by itself. Earlier this year, Obama expressed his faith in North Korea’s impending collapse in an interview with YouTube creator Hank Green. But as Yonsei University Professor Moon Chung-in and I wrote in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, the Kim Jong Un regime looks quite stable. And even in the unlikely case of an implosion, a military junta—fists clenched—would probably step in to rule in Kim’s place.

The only viable denuclearization option is negotiation, yet this too has proved elusive. The six-party talks—a tortuous series of negotiations among China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program—stalled in 2009 and look unlikely to resume anytime soon.

The current standstill is rife with dangers, and a cautionary tale of how bad things could get if Iran follows the same route. Even though Kim is unlikely to deploy his nuclear weapons unprovoked, the possibility of nuclear war in Northeast Asia cannot be discounted, especially given the volatility, distrust, and militarization of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang’s nuclear march represents a serious risk of proliferation to others who might not show first-use restraint. North Korea’s bombs also undermine South Korea’s commitment to remain nuclear-free (it covertly pursued a program in the 1970s) and Japan’s (it has one of the shortest “breakout times”—the time required to start producing nuclear weapons—in the world). Things are bad for the people and government of North Korea as well. By clinging to a nuclear deterrent, the country has isolated itself politically and economically. And Kim Jong Un’s “byungjin strategy” of simultaneously improving the country’s nuclear program and its economy virtually guarantees a sluggish rate of economic growth.


Things could have been different with North Korea, as they still can be with Iran. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States had a chance to convince Kim Jong Il not to go nuclear. The Agreed Framework, signed in October 1994 by U.S. and North Korean negotiators in Geneva, put a verifiable freeze on North Korean plutonium production and dismantled the country’s reactors. But the Clinton administration was unable to convert the nuclear deal into a political settlement, and then President George W. Bush walked away from the agreement, triggering North Korea’s so-called nuclear breakout.

Why was there no settlement? Simply put, domestic politics undermined prudent foreign policy. One month after Clinton signed the Agreed Framework, the success of the Republican Party in the 1994 U.S. midterm elections turned Congress into a fortress of obstruction. Facing battles on the Hill and crisis in the Balkans, White House officials thought they could leave North Korea on the back burner. As attention drifted elsewhere, implementation of the Agreed Framework became more difficult and contested. Critics in the U.S. Congress exaggerated minor issues, such as whether North Korean military units were “diverting” part of the oil assistance supplied under the agreement. Meanwhile, Pyongyang hardliners pushed Kim Jong Il toward a more aggressive military posture. The new accord with Iran is likely to be exposed to the same kind of guerilla attacks in both Washington and Tehran.

With two years left in office, Clinton belatedly made a big push at a settlement, enlisting his former Defense Secretary Bill Perry to spearhead the effort. The so-called Perry Process laid out a roadmap toward a peace treaty to end the Korean War, a normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, and the lifting of sanctions against North Korea. There was a burst of progress in the twilight of the Clinton years, when the White House received Kim Jong Il’s senior military official in October 2000 and signed a joint communiqué on how “to fundamentally improve bilateral relations.” Secretary of State Madeline Albright then visited Pyongyang, and among other things negotiated a missile deal with Kim Jong Il. By this point, U.S. intelligence had known for a few years that North Korea was dabbling with a uranium path to the bomb, but Clinton wisely recognized this as an early-stage hedging strategy and stayed focused the country’s plutonium and missile programs—the two real threats.

The joint communiqué had all the right ingredients to deliver a true breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations, and implementing it would have secured Pyongyang’s choice to forgo nuclear deterrence. Had the United States made an all-out effort to sign a peace treaty and guarantee North Korean security, while also lifting sanctions and encouraging economic integration in the region, North Korea could have been another Asian communist success story, without needing nuclear weapons. But Clinton’s big push came too late, and then George W. Bush dealt this fragile process a death-blow by walking away from the table.

Bush came into office determined to get out of the Agreed Framework. In his famous State of the Union address, he pronounced North Korea to be a member of the Axis of Evil, and, as Vice President Dick Cheney explained, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” Critics of the Iran deal resort to the same sort of Manichean language, and there is little reason to think the consequences of their arguments would be any less dire for U.S. national security. In the case of North Korea, the country’s logical response was to call Bush’s bluff and stage a nuclear breakout. Bush, hands full with Iraq, had to fold. By the time he realized the folly of refusing to negotiate, North Korea had added to its plutonium stock, conducted nuclear and missile tests, and lost faith in the likelihood of a settlement with the United States. Bush outsourced the problem to Beijing, which convened the six-party talks.

Obama seems to have had even less of an interest than Bush in a nuclear deal, let alone in a political settlement, with North Korea. Starting in 2009, Pyongyang staged its second nuclear breakout by pushing ahead with a uranium program and conducting more nuclear and missile tests. Obama only briefly considered resurrecting a nuclear freeze deal and never seriously pursued a settlement with either the ailing Kim Jong Il or the cherubic Kim Jong Un. Obama may leave office convinced he did the right thing with regard to North Korea by not rewarding “bad behavior,” as he said in March 2012, but history is likely to be a harsher judge.

Fortunately, it is not too late for Obama to make the right choices in dealing with Iran. By learning from Clinton’s failure to turn a nuclear deal with North Korea into a political settlement, he can at least try to avoid the same mistake in the Middle East. Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani should seize the opportunity their nuclear agreement has created to forge a political and strategic realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations. From Capitol Hill to Riyadh to Jerusalem, the opposition has already begun to mobilize. With the U.S. presidential campaign season looming, Obama will have to seize the moment by taking bold steps to permanently transform U.S.-Iranian relations. The nuclear deal opens the gateway to normalization, which is the best hope for making sure the nuclear freeze really sticks.

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  • JOHN DELURY is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, South Korea.
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