POINT OF VIEW/ David Asher: Iran, N. Korea, and 'déjà vu diplomacy' in the new six-party talks

February 21, 2014

Special to The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

American humorist Mark Twain once quipped that “history doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes.”

As a former North Korean nuclear negotiator in the six-party talks, it is difficult not to be concerned that the P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany) talks with Iran on its nuclear program will end up “rhyming” with the failed six-party talks process.

There is much in common between the approaches for the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program, which began in 2003, and the “Joint Plan of Action” for Iran’s nuclear program, agreed to in November 2013.

Key implementation steps and safeguards are being left toward the end of the process, economic and financial pressure is being relaxed pre-emptively (and just when it is having a significant impact), and rather than develop a comprehensive agreement upfront to ensure that Iran completely, verifiably and irreversibly abandons its nuclear weapons program, a number of piecemeal “interim agreements” are being pursued instead.

The possibility of endless nuclear “sakiokuri" (postponement) with Tehran, as with Pyongyang, is obviously high.

Also as with North Korea, the fundamental orientation of the state in international affairs is not subject to negotiation. Iran has a military-first state--a theocratic state dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under the control of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--that is dedicated to resistance against the West.

The idea of resistance is at the heart of Iranian revolutionary thinking, and why denial, deception and dissimulation are so pervasive in Iran’s strategic calculus. Iran will flout international norms and violate agreements whenever necessary, because that’s what resistance is all about--remaking the world in a new image, with Iran sitting atop a stronger Islamic community of nations.

As Iran pushes outward, winning in Syria and pushing its revolutionary weight across the "Shia Crescent" from western Afghanistan to the Levant and into the Persian Gulf, the world will have to begin to ask some very difficult questions, the most important of which being that even if a permanent nuclear deal is somehow reached, how long will Iran honor it?

Iran’s new spirit of compromise has not softened its stance toward Israel, diminished the breadth of its support and outreach to Shia proxies across the region, or even altered its view of the United States in any fundamental way. At the same time, Iran continues to turn to allies in its "Axis of Resistance," most importantly, North Korea.

North Korea has a rapidly growing stockpile of weapons grade uranium (WGU). The Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank, estimates that North Korea could manufacture as many as 26 to 37 bombs worth of WGU by the end of 2016.

North Korea does not need another 26 to 37 warheads worth of enriched uranium for its security. It already has more than enough plutonium-based weapons in its arsenal to ensure a type of mutually assured destruction, an arsenal that few experts believe North Korea strategically needs in any event, given its existing ability to inflict tremendous conventional military damage.

Even if we assume half of these WGU weapons will be deployed on missiles (including against Japan), it is unrealistic to assume the totality of WGU is being produced for domestic use or that North Korea can even financially afford its indigenous program. What North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime does need is money: money that Iran has and is now increasingly able to spend. Even worse, there are signs that Iran could be breaking the P5+1 nuclear agreement with North Korea’s help, even as it begins to officially implement it.


In mid-July 2002, Kim Yong Nam, North Korean president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, led a high-level delegation to Damascus, Syria, for a mysterious purpose. On July 18, 2002, an Agreement for Scientific and Technological Cooperation was signed between the governments of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Syria.

In hindsight this agreement was the keystone for the commencement of a covert nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria, which ultimately resulted in the construction of a Yongbyon-like nuclear reactor complex at Al-Kibar on the Euphrates River and, possibly, other forms of nuclear weapons related cooperation. In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force attacked and destroyed this clandestine nuclear facility.

A great deal of mystery surrounds the Al-Kibar facility. Where did the financially strapped Assad regime get the money to build it? Was it a coincidence that, according to a declassified U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran in late 2003 put its nuclear weapons program on hold at roughly the same time that Iran’s ally, Syria, likely broke ground on Al-Kibar with North Korea’s help? Is it a further coincidence that North Korea simultaneously began constructing a weapons grade enriched uranium program, overseen by the same two North Korean officials in charge of selling plutonium weapons technology to Syria, who also were in charge of procuring North Korea's highly enriched uranium program technology?

Iranian officials publicly alleged to have been responsible for selling Syria its plutonium program. Did Iran somehow outsource its nuclear weapons program to Syria and North Korea in 2003?

Ominously, Kim Yong Nam led a similar delegation to Tehran in late August 2012, ostensibly to attend the annual Non-Aligned Movement Conference. On Sept. 1, 2012, Iran and North Korea announced the signing of a scientific cooperation agreement that appears almost the same as that signed in 2002 by North Korea and Syria.

The only “science and technology” North Korea has to offer Iran that it hasn’t already sold is in the nuclear arena. The Iranian retinue attendant at the welcoming ceremony for the North Korean president should have set off alarm bells. Cabinet members attending the ceremony included Mehdi Ghazanfari, minister of Industry, Mine and Trade; Brigadier Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, the defense minister; and Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

The same day the Iranian government announced that North Korea would become a member of its “Axis of Resistance,” along with Syria and Hezbollah. Kim Yong Nam returned to Tehran in August 2013 to meet newly elected President Hassan Rouhani.

During the meeting Rouhani said that he will push for an “all-out expansion of ties between Tehran and Pyongyang.” Kim Yong Nam said that the DPRK “supports the Iranian private sector’s presence in different economic and industrial fields in North Korea” and that the DPRK supports “Iran’s right to access peaceful nuclear technology.”

Did the 2012 North Korea-Iran Science and Technology Agreement open an official door for clandestine nuclear weapons cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the middle of the P5+1 talks, as occurred during the six-party talks? No one knows.

However, given the ominous Syria precedent, this possibility needs to be guarded against aggressively, not complacently. In the joint plan of action, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” Does this also mean Iran will not import or possess nuclear weapons from an ally like North Korea? This diplomatic loophole needs to be closed tight.


It is time to stop the complacency on countering, containing and disrupting North Korea’s proliferation machinery and malevolent regime before serious and enduring damage occurs to global security. A nuclear-armed and proliferating North Korea fundamentally jeopardizes international stability and U.S. strategic interests in Asia, the Middle East, as well as homeland security. Together with Japan and South Korea, U.S. policy must squarely address the North Korean threat and seek to actively counter, protect, deter and disrupt Pyongyang’s burgeoning nuclear and missile capabilities, especially the possibility of nuclear proliferation to Iran.

Containing the spread of the Iranian revolution is equally important. For Iran the potential possession of nuclear weapons is only the tip of a revolutionary spear that extends deep across the Middle East and challenges regional stability.

It is hard not to say that Iran is winning across the diplomatic chessboard--in the nuclear talks, in its economic reopening, and with its covert and overt action campaign to create a Shia Crescent. Iran has learned from North Korea how to out-negotiate and tie down the "great powers." History is repeating itself.

* * *


He is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Born in 1968, he graduated from Cornell University and received his doctorate in international relations from the University of Oxford. Between 2001 and 2005, he served as the special coordinator for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of State and senior adviser to the United States in the six-party talks.

Special to The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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David Asher

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