The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.
Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.
The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.
But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.
The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.
But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.
Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.