A recent Foreign Affairs article by Max Boot and Sue Mi Terry—“The Wrong Lessons from North Korea: Avoiding a Nuclear Iran”—attacks a piece we wrote in the New York Times about the real lessons of the United States’ efforts to stop North Korea from going nuclear. Although everyone knows the old bromide “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it is essential not just to remember the past but also to understand it. From our perspective as participants in U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea, Boot and Terry’s argument fails that test.
We second Boot and Terry’s motion that the United States’ experience with Pyongyang should make Washington wary of similar negotiations with Tehran. But we disagree with their discussion of U.S.–North Korean nuclear negotiations that follows. It portrays Pyongyang as being on an unrelenting march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, uninhibited by U.S. diplomacy and, indeed, encouraged by Washington’s naive provision of assistance intended to convince the North to stop. The lessons of this experience for Iran, the authors imply, should be obvious.
The only problem is that their history ignores history. They are right, of course, that the United States has failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear program over the past 20 years. Moreover, recent studies and press reports have made it clear that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons’ stockpile may be on the verge of a dramatic expansion. Just how great that expansion could be is open to conjecture, since predicting the future of anything in North Korea is a difficult proposition. Taking into account these uncertainties, one study (led by one of the authors) concludes that North Korea could have anywhere from 20–100 nuclear weapons by 2020, with a stockpile of 50 bombs the most likely outcome.
But in at least one historical episode—the one with which we are most familiar, since we negotiated the deal—a nuclear agreement with Pyongyang did have disastrous consequences for North Korea.
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