28.06.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Fate of Iran and Future of the Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula

As we take a look at the situation involving Iran, which has been accused of orchestrating a terrorist attack against a tanker, and as we remember the circumstances under which the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, it seems apt to summarize some thoughts on what effect these developments will have on the Korean Peninsula.

Spirit and letter

The fact that Iran has been accused of violating the spirit of the agreement means that the accusers take no issue with extent of compliance with the letter of the law. And all the formal obligations taken on by the side “in breach of the contract” are being fulfilled. Still, “we do not like them”, because the concluded agreement was never viewed as a legally enforceable document, but instead as a “deal which implied they would never do anything that we did not like again”. And since this has not been the case, we have accused them of violating the spirit of the agreement, which gives us the right to review the terms and conditions of the deal or even revoke it.

At this point, one cannot but recall an analogous situation at the start of the current stage of the North Korean nuclear crisis. In 1994, the United States and the DPRK signed a so-called framework agreement, which should actually be referred to as the Agreed Framework since it was also, in part, a gentlemen’s agreement. Normally, the only thing that people remember about this deal is that North Korea had promised to suspend its nuclear weapons program. But what the other side had agreed to do in return has been steadfastly pushed into the background.

First of all, the USA was supposed to build two light-water nuclear reactors, which could not be used for military purposes. They were meant to be completed by 2003, but by autumn 2002, only their foundations had been built. And according to experts, the scandal erupted at the time when people started asking questions.

Secondly, while the reactors were being constructed, energy needs were meant to be met with supplies of heavy fuel (mazut). However, the Bush administration then reviewed the terms of the agreement and announced that the fuel would be delivered in exchange for respecting human rights instead of suspending the nuclear program. After that, the supplies stopped fairly quickly because “North Korea failed to meet its obligations”.

Thirdly, the agreement stated that the USA would strive towards establishing diplomatic relations with the DPRK (i.e. North Korea was eventually to receive diplomatic recognition from the United States). However, no such steps were made during the eight years that the deal was seemingly enforced.

It is also noteworthy that during the previously mentioned period, no hard evidence was ever presented to prove that North Korea was working on its nuclear program in secret. Supporters of the theory that they were refer to confidential documents and equipment, which they refuse to divulge any information about as the “subsequent development of the nuclear weapons program” proves their point. In other words, if North Koreans were to create a bomb afterwards it means that they had been working on it even before (while the deal was still in place).

In addition, the author has come across some explanations as to why the United States had every right to not meet its obligations as per the agreement. According to one viewpoint, since the Agreed Framework was never ratified by the U.S. Congress, from a legal perspective, the United States had every right not to consider the document legally binding. Another opinion is far more cynical, but the author thinks it is far more telling and important. The DPRK is a pariah, hence normal rules of foreign policy engagement do not apply to it. Any agreements signed with such a rogue nation are nothing more than a “military tactic”. That is why one only abides by such deals as long as it is advantageous. Hence, as soon as an opportunity to revoke them presents itself, it is done. From this perspective, any accusations of violating the spirit of the agreement that follow are a fairly normal development, after all a rogue state is guilty by the very fact of it being rogue. No additional explanations are therefore necessary.

And naturally, additional demands, which may be deemed unreasonable for independent nations that have not lost a war, can be made on this isolated country. And we are not the ones who need to prove that they are in possession of something illegal or that they are guilty of a highly publicized crime such as the assassination in Malaysia. Instead the pariah needs to prove its innocence, which is that much harder. ство отсутствия). А мы подумаем…

Such a policy, in concert with periodic accusations that the DPRK violated the spirit of the agreement reached in Singapore (by not disarming and continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program although the ban only applies to launches and tests, and which is not a legally binding part of the deal as yet), once again pushes North Korea to think about any existing guarantees. Furthermore, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has made accusations (similar in wording to the U.S. ones) against the United States, as for example, during the case involving the seizure of bulk carrier Wise Honest.

New rules for pariahs

According to U.S. current political rhetoric, rogue states include Iran and the DPRK, and the unfortunate sanctions imposed on Russia resulted in the Russian Federation’s inclusion in this list. But what does this mean from a foreign policy perspective?

  • First of all, the United States was give an opportunity to label any nation a rogue state all by itself and then decide to what extent they would fulfill obligations as per agreements. Such behavior has little to do with international law only because there is no mention in it of nations with a “pariah status”. From an official perspective, both North Korea and Iran are members of the United Nations just as the United States is, and therefore, enjoy the same rights and protections.
  • Secondly, the entire international community, and not only Iran and the DPRK, is being taught a useful lesson about the validity of international agreements under the current world order. In addition, it is impossible to exert any influence on a breaching party via international institutions and force it to meet its obligations.
  • This results in a lack of trust in the entire system of international agreements, after all what is the point of signing a deal if you understand that the other side will not fulfill its end of the bargain. Hence, it is easier not to compromise or instead to impose conditions thus creating an environment in which you have got the right end of the stick.

Naturally, Iran’s experience is as useful of a lesson for the DPRK as that of Libya. And every time Western and South Korean media outlets start reporting about DPRK’s unwillingness to compromise or engage in dialogue, it is not unreasonable to ask the question ‘Why should North Korea wish to compromise or begin a dialogue?’.

Russia has also witnessed the aforementioned developments and has refused to remain silent.   According to Mikhail Ulyanov, the Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, policies that undermine the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and trust in it have a very negative impact on any efforts to ensure non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If USA were to choose war, Iran is a more convenient opponent that DPRK

Some of the author’s acquaintances have started to believe that the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the attack on the tanker may be followed by even more serious developments. Instead of reining in North Korea, Washington intends to punish Iran to illustrate its point. The latter is a less dangerous foe, and geopolitical consequences of such a conflict may not be as serious. On more than one occasion, the author has focused on the fact that among certain American strategists (who are approached for advice on what country to attack next in order to then emerge victorious shortly after, thus demonstrating to the world the full might of the U.S. armed forces), there are those who choose Iran as the next target for the following reasons.

  • Iran has been demonized as much as the DPRK, hence it would not be difficult, with the aid of propaganda, to explain why the world needs saving from this rogue state.
  • In the case of either Iran or North Korea, there are convenient launching grounds for attacks to where Americans (considering their skill level and logistics expertise) can transport substantial armed forces.
  • The DPRK possesses a nuclear and, most likely, a hydrogen bomb, as well as capabilities for launching missiles that can reach Guam. It is true that in theory, U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense systems could intercept all the rockets. But even if one missile carrying a nuclear warhead were to reach the United States, the conflict would no longer be viewed as winnable.
  • North Korea’s secretiveness means that it is impossible to launch an effective preventive (and disarming) strike against it, which would reduce its military capabilities and capacities to a minimum. There are many decoy installations, many underground facilities, and in order to “unearth” some of them it may be necessary to use tactical nuclear weapons. This is a risky undertaking, which may turn into a drawn-out conflict. Even a war of attrition against North Korea, involving indiscriminate regular airstrikes and a subsequent waiting period until the regime falls for one reason or another, is still risky.
  • U.S. allies are located near the DPRK, and are within reach of North Korea’s conventional weapons. These nations are 1) of value; 2) an attack against them would lead to an economic crisis, and 3) we have not even considered the possibility that the DPRK may choose to go out in a blaze of glory and start bombing numerous nuclear power stations in South Korea. The DPRK would attack military installations in Japan not out hatred towards its people but for strategic reasons. And the regions near these bases would most likely be affected. As for Iran, it is not clear whether it would be able to successfully attack Israel or U.S. Arab allies, who are not necessarily partners when it comes to oil-related activities.
  • Opponents’ allies? Russia is unlikely to directly support either Iran or North Korea, as public opinion and a number of politicians would oppose such involvement. China, on the other hand, would most probably view the attack against the DPRK as part of the conflict between the PRC and the United States. However, the involvement of the “second wave of volunteers” is unlikely, still China would probably do more than just “urge for a peaceful resolution” and actually provide aid to the DPRK by other means. In addition, the current South Korean administration is not the most reliable partner to the USA, and is capable of sabotage behind its ally’s back.
  • Finally, Iran is not simply a place where a ‘Fifth Estate’ can emerge purely hypothetically. The nation is, in fact, a fertile ground for a pro-American democratic movement that can start at just the right time.  After all, mass protests have already taken place in Iran, and there are politicians who are perceived to oppose the government and who have democratic views. If we were to discount propaganda, it is highly unlikely that such opposition forces would emerge in the DPRK.

We would also like to highlight that, according to viewpoints of some experts, the current U.S. administration views Iran and not North Korea as its main foe. The level of animosity directed towards Iran is noticeably higher than that towards the DPRK. And although there is antagonism to North Korea, especially within Christian communities, there is no anti-DPRK lobby which is as influential as the pro-Israeli or pro-Saudi ones. In addition, John Bolton is not only viewed as “the father of the North Korean nuclear weapons program”, but also as an active supporter of a war against Iran.

Pariah coalition?

An enemy of your enemy often turns out to be your ally because often you have a common enemy. In addition, opponents of rogue states often try to establish a connection between these pariahs. For example, when Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, he accused Iran of not only violating the spirit of the agreement but also of supporting terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (organizations banned in the Russian Federation), and of passing technology to the DPRK. Nikki Haley also pointed out that the negotiations on the nuclear issues between the United States and Iran might have an impact on the dialogue with North Korea.

Later on, James N. Mattis, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, stated that the DPRK and Iran were continuing to engage in unlawful activities, which posed a threat to regional and global stability; to repress their citizens by taking away their rights and dignity, and to promote their questionable views. In response, the United States was determined to persist with its efforts to contain both Iran and North Korea by focusing on creating a multi-layered anti-missile defense system and by modernizing armed forces.

Hence, the author has no reason to overreact towards issues involving military collaboration between the two pariahs, first and foremost in the missile sector, or their communication via diplomatic channels. Let us recall the way Hassan Rouhani welcomed Ri Yong-ho, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Korea. According to reports by Iranian media outlets, Ri Yong-ho informed his Iranian counterparts about the progress of the negotiations with the United States on the issue of denuclearization, and also criticized Washington for withdrawing from the nuclear deal and for re-imposing sanctions against Tehran. The Iranian President said that the USA had become an unreliable partner, incapable of keeping its promises, in the eyes of the international community.

According to the Minister from North Korea, expanding ties with Iran was part of DPRK’s strategic course. Pyongyang and Tehran maintain friendly ties and share common views on various regional and international issues.

In addition, Iran has used similar negotiation tactics to those employed by North Korea. This is evidenced in the following quote from 13 October 2017: “If, at any point in time, Iran perceives that the actions taken by the opposing side with regards to lifting sanctions are insufficient in the eyes of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it will resort to one of several options. And one of them is the withdrawal from the nuclear deal.” There is also a statement, made by the head of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 15 October 2017: “If sanctions were to be re-imposed in spheres that are crucial for Iran, such as the export of oil, shipping and insurance of sea freight, and the sale of planes, the nation would have the right to make a decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement”.

So what can we expect in the future? In reality there are two key consequences. First of all, the situation in Iran could lead to increased distrust in North Korea, which, in turn, could manifest itself in different ways. Either way, such developments would not promote dialogue between the United States and the DPRK. Secondly, if, in fact, the USA were on the brink of war with Iran, the conflict with North Korea would be put on the backburner for now, as the world power cannot afford two serious wars at the same time.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.