When looking at the Iran deal, it’s worth remembering how it worked out the last time we made a nuclear deal with a totalitarian nation.
That cautionary example is, of course, North Korea. The United States went down this road with the “Hermit Kingdom” in 1994, with the negotiation of the so-called Agreed Framework. Under its terms, North Korea was supposed to dismantle its nuclear facilities — then capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium — and receive, in return, help building less advanced reactors for peaceful purposes, as well as shipments of heavy fuel oil to offset energy shortages. But in 2002, U.S. intelligence discovered that the North was cheating — buying materials apparently intended for uranium enrichment. After years of contentious negotiations, North Korea finally fessed up in 2010.
Over the past decade, North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests and now has about 10 bombs. Within five years it could have another 10, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at my university. The North also has a robust missile program, with a fleet of short- and medium-range missiles, and claims it could mount a nuclear warhead on one. The head of the U.S. Northern Command has publicly agreed. Since the 1990s, North Korea has been working on a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); given its successful launch of a space satellite with a large, three-stage rocket in 2012, it appears just short of that goal.
In the wake of the Iran agreement, North Korea is now coming under U.S. and international pressure to return to the bargaining table, which it abandoned in 2008 after years of what were called “six-party talks” (the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea). But the North’s ambassadors in China and Russia slammed the door on a renewal just last week.
Why is North Korea so adamantly against talks, and what are the prospects for changing that? The primary motive is simple: regime survival. Long squeezed by international sanctions and regarded as the globe’s most repressive political system, North Korea revolves around a cult of personality centered on the Kim dynasty. The leadership has long seen nuclear weapons as the key to survival, often citing Libya as its own cautionary example. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear program in 2004 and was killed in 2011, as his regime collapsed during Libya’s violent version of the so-called Arab Spring.