Commentary Magazine


Iran’s North Korean Example

The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.

One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.

But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.

Like the Iranians are doing now, North Korea also engaged in a diplomatic process prior to their going nuclear. Several times they agreed to only use their nuclear plant for peaceful purposes and in exchange for those promises were rewarded by the West. But they reneged on every promise and were eventually able to announce the achievement of their nuclear goal, leaving the U.S. with no plausible method for rectifying the situation. All Washington can do about it now is to help pass U.N. resolutions that don’t impress the North Koreans. Meanwhile, South Koreans and others in the region are left to wonder whether Kim will ever make good on his threats.

The diplomatic situation with Iran is just as bleak as the one that was previously conducted with the North Koreans. The Iranians know they have time on their side, and though their economy is much larger and more dependant on foreign trade, they, too, have discovered that it can survive even a program of tough sanctions imposed from abroad. And if the Obama administration ever does make good on its promise to stop the ayatollahs from gaining nuclear capability, the Iranians also know theirs is a bigger country that would provide a difficult military challenge to any nation that sought to take out their nuclear facilities.

The North Koreans did have one advantage that the Iranians do not possess. The 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War and the heavily armed standoff along the borders between the two Koreas may have made any resort to force to stop the North from going nuclear difficult if not impossible. But there is no such predicament to stop the U.S. from a strike on Iran as a last resort to prevent it from going nuclear.

What President Obama needs to be thinking about today as he ponders the implication of Kim’s threats is just how much more dangerous the world would be if North Korea’s ally Iran also had the bomb. It may be that the help North Korea is selling the Iranians may render timetables about Tehran’s progress moot. But whether or not that is true, the West must understand that its current dilemma is a product of the feckless nuclear diplomacy it conducted with Pyongyang under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

More time wasted with dead end diplomacy that only serves Iran’s purposes only gets the world that much closer to the day when there will be two nuclear rogue regimes rather than just one. The longer a decision about using force against Iran is put off, the more likely it will be that North Korea won’t be the only nation making nuclear threats against the U.S. in the not so distant future.

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