Even in today’s interconnected world, a lot of news is bundled by region — and so it often works with rogue states and their neighborhoods. The past few months have been an especially lively period for wayward states in the Middle East, where by diplomatic sleight-of-hand the regimes of Damascus and Tehran have been transformed from terrorist-sponsoring WMD proliferators into erstwhile or potential partners of the U.S. in nonproliferation. In August the big focus was on Syria, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the ensuing deal — in which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin translated Assad’s nerve gas into a bargaining chip for re-expanding Russian influence and a dwindling role for the U.S. in the Middle East (in which Secretary of State John Kerry is now praising Syria’s President Bashar Assad).
September brought the Iranian regime’s “charm” offensive, in which President Hassan Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, snubbed President Obama’s offer to meet in person, and lectured the world on Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He was rewarded with a presidential phone call, the return to Iran of a million dollar griffin-shaped silver drinking cup and plans for nuclear talks next week in Geneva.
While that’s been going on, Americans have had plenty of distractions on their home turf, between news of the federal shutdown, debates over what’s actually been shut and footage of news anchors trying unsuccessfully to log onto the new government healthcare web sites.
Amid all this, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on North Korea. It’s been eight long months since Pyongyang’s third nuclear test — way back in February. It’s been three years since North Korea advertised to the world that along with its plutonium path to the bomb, it had installed at its Yongbyon complex a uranium enrichment facility (which on satellite imagery appears to have since doubled in size). Given the tempo of the modern news cycle, that’s prehistoric.
But that steam rising from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex is not for making tea. South Korea’s main intelligence agency has confirmed the reports of a number of U.S. analysts that North Korea has restarted the Soviet-built reactor that was shut down in 2007, as part of a failed nuclear freeze deal that was bracketed by North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. There is some debate over whether this reactor is more dangerous as a source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear bomb program, or as a facility so decrepit that it might go haywire and produce what Russia has warned could be a “man-made catastrophe.”
That’s just part of the picture, however. A further danger — an even greater danger — that comes with North Korea restarting this reactor is the example it sets, yet again, for Iran. Behold: North Korea is pressing ahead, again, with its nuclear weapons program, and getting away with it. When a State Department spokeswoman was asked last month by Reuters if North Korea was restarting its Yongbyon reactor, the over-stuffed reply was: “Suffice it to say, if it was true, it would be a violation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and of course contrary to North Korea’s commitments under its September 19, 2005, joint statement.” Well, yes, but it’s way past time for the State Department to acknowledge flat out that North Korea has no “commitments.” That fantasy should have ended with the three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013, that North Korea has conducted since that 2005 joint statement. The promises North Korea made in 2005 were not commitments. They were lies.
For North Korea, diplomatic deals are made to be broken. There has never been a penalty so large or painful as to truly derail the regime’s nuclear program — the truth being that probably the only way to do that is to derail the regime itself. In on-again off-again bouts over the past 19 years, North Korea has struck diplomatic deals meant to stop its nuclear weapons program; winning aid and concessions only to renege, cheat and carry on building bombs. This is the North Korean nuclear playbook that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned about in his speech earlier this month to the UN.
This is the example North Korea has pioneered for Iran. Despite sanctions and the disapproval of the U.S. superpower, North Korea has demonstrated, repeatedly, that it is possible for even a desperately impoverished and bizarre state to produce and test nuclear weapons — as well as missiles to deliver them. The nuclear program itself becomes an instrument for extortion of deference and aid from the free world, a twist that in North Korea’s case has worked not to stop the nuclear program, but to help sustain the regime. In this rogue calculus, diplomacy is not a path to nuclear disarmament, but a way of bleeding off pressure when sanctions become too onerous, or when U.S. disapproval threatens to translate into a direct threat to the regime itself.
Worse, North Korea is not merely an example for Iran. It is also a longtime ally and business-partner-in-arms. Iran doesn’t have to puzzle out the North Korean playbook from a great distance. Delegations and personnel routinely go back and forth. In the realms of both diplomacy and weapons, there is plenty of evidence of a shared playbook, going all the way back to the early years of Iran’s Islamic regime, when according to North Korean officialdom the current Iranian president Rouhani paid a visit to the late North Korean founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung. More on this in my column on “Iran’s Sequel to North Korea’s Nuclear Playbook.”
(Artwork created using images by Shutterstock.com.)