Home inFocus Learning Lessons From North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Learning Lessons From North Korea’s Nuclear Program

David Ibsen Winter 2009

For at least the last 15 years, North Korea has acted in a manner that threatens regional stability and international security. North Korea systematically violates international law, engages in extensive proliferation and criminal activities, and brutalizes its own population. The country’s 2006 nuclear test only served to increase the scope of these threats.

Until the 2006 test, North Korea had been in dialogue with the international community, via the six-party talks, to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon. North Korea deliberately continued to develop a nuclear weapon under the cover of those negotiations.

Once it had obtained a nuclear weapon, North Korea returned to the table only to use new leverage created by the threat of its nuclear program to elicit aid, security guarantees, and other concessions from the international community. Such actions should concern the international community, particularly as other states—notably Iran—pursue nuclear weapons. Indeed, Iran may see negotiations as a mechanism for buying time and returning to diplomacy only after it has achieved sufficient leverage to secure concessions from the U.S. and major European powers.

The North Korea Model

North Korea’s strategy of using its missile and nuclear programs to achieve security, recognition, and aid has been remarkably successful. North Korea receives diplomatic attention from the international community on a scale far greater than its economic and political importance justifies. North Korea has little to no economic potential, a retrograde political system, and one of the most isolated and repressed populations on Earth. Its political system is maintained only through a combination of international aid and revenue obtained via widespread criminal activities.

By playing the villain, however, North Korea has managed to get what it wants from the international community. Using the threat of nuclear weapons and its potential for destabilizing the region, North Korea has drawn the international community into a series of negotiations, from which it wrangles considerable concessions, including fuel, food, currency, security guarantees, and diplomatic recognition.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are threats to international security for several reasons. The country has never been shy about selling its weapons technology to other states. Recently, North Korea worked with Iran to develop that regime’s ever-expanding missile capabilities. North Korea also exported its nuclear know-how to Syria, where it aided in the construction of the al-Kibar nuclear reactor, which the Israelis subsequently destroyed in a 2007 air strike.

North Korea also engages in a wide variety of illicit financial activities, including smuggling, drug trafficking, and counterfeiting. Financial sanctions and self-imposed isolation have severely restricted North Korea’s access to international financial markets, and to the hard currency that the regime requires to run its economy. These illicit activities provide a means for North Korea to prop up its regime. Weapons sales, including the sale of nuclear technology, present another lucrative source of revenue.

North Korea’s Nukes

North Korea’s nuclear program undoubtedly poses a danger to international security. It is particularly daunting, considering the value that the regime in Pyongyang places on human life. Millions of North Koreans have starved to death under the regime and hundreds of thousands of North Koreans languish in wretched concentration and prison camps. Malnourishment is so rampant that North Koreans, on average, are about 2.5 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

This mass-starvation has gone on while hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid has flowed into the country to feed the population. The regime used those funds to strengthen the regime, rather than feed the population. A regime that places so little value on the life of its own citizens, and then willfully provides arms to states that sponsor terror groups, cannot be trusted to behave responsibly with weapons that could destroy entire populations.

The North Koreans have also used nuclear weapons—and the country’s missile program—as leverage to elicit concessions. If North Korea needs an infusion of aid in the form of food, fuel or hard currency, it can use the threat of a missile launch or a nuclear test to compel the international community to re-enter negotiations.

When North Korea Negotiates

Historically, the framework of negotiations between North Korea and the international community stipulates that North Korea will abide by its obligations, cease its irresponsible behavior, and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for a combination of the following: normalization of relations, security guarantees from the U.S., economic aid, and energy assistance.

Once the North Koreans are at the negotiating table, however, they draw out or suspend talks until better terms are reached. For example, in December 2005, North Korea suspended the six-party talks and later conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006. Although this nuclear test was roundly condemned initially, the international community and North Korea eventually re-entered negotiations, and North Korea used its increased leverage as a nuclear power to elicit significant concessions from the international community in exchange for shutting down its nuclear facilities.

In 2007 and 2008, the strategy worked again. North Korea received 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, millions of dollars in unfrozen funds from illicit bank accounts, removal from the U.S. government’s state sponsors of terrorism list, and increased food aid. In exchange, the North Koreans shut down their nuclear program and dismantled their nuclear facilities.

North Korean concessions don’t last long, however. The North Koreans subsequently resumed their nuclear program and conducted another nuclear test in 2009. When new sanctions were imposed as a result of the North Korean nuclear test, the North Koreans announced they were weaponizing plutonium from fuel rods at the nuclear weapons reactor in Yongbyon—the same nuclear reactor that was to be dismantled as part of the six-party talks. North Korea then announced it was enriching uranium for another source of fuel for a nuclear weapon.

According to the North Koreans, these steps were necessary to strengthen their nuclear deterrence “in the face of increasing nuclear threats… from hostile forces.” Their real reason, however, is to entice the international community back to the negotiating table for additional concessions.

This strategy has served North Korea well, and sets a dangerous precedent for other states—notably Iran.

What Would Kim Jong-Il Do?

Iran, like North Korea, is a danger to international security. Iran foments conflict in the Middle East, supports terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, brutally suppresses its own people, and provides support to anti-U.S. forces in Iraq. Hundreds of American service personnel and innocent civilians have been victims of terror attacks by Iran’s proxies worldwide.

Iran, in recent years, has become a serious proliferation threat. Given the regime’s past behavior, the international community is now working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., China, Britain, France, and Russia, plus Germany) present an opportunity to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. During these negotiations however, the international community must be wary of the Iranians employing the North Korean strategy. Indeed, the Iranians could draw out negotiations, as the North Koreans did, as cover to finalize development of a nuclear weapon, which would then provide the leverage needed to elicit further concessions. The North Koreans walked away from the negotiating table and suspended talks. This did not hurt North Korean’s position—it most likely improved it.

The recent offer to Iran by the international community was, in fact, a generous one. It allowed Iran to ship its enriched uranium abroad for further processing, only to be returned to Iran for use in a research reactor. The deal even allowed Iran to use fuel produced in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. In rejecting this offer, Iranians seem to believe that they can get a better deal further down the road, particularly as talks drag on and Iran gets closer to a nuclear weapon.

Even prior to the rejection of the latest offer, the Iranians had achieved significant concessions from the international community. The standing offer to Iran from the Europeans was “freeze for freeze,” wherein the international community would hold off on new sanctions in return for Iran’s decision to stop enriching uranium. Now, instead of dealing only with European interlocutors on this “freeze for freeze” agreement, the Iranians have American interlocutors and have secured this new enrichment deal. Such an agreement not only acknowledges Iran’s illicit enrichment program, but it provides for Iran’s uranium to be further enriched. What is more, these concessions have come after only a month of negotiations.

This is not to say that negotiating with Iran is not worthwhile. But considering Iran’s nuclear progress (it is already spinning 8,300 centrifuges, enough to potentially produce fuel for one bomb per year), and the discovery this year of the secret enrichment facility at Qom, it is important to ensure that the international community is not drawn into a North Korean–type scenario in which negotiations serve as cover for the final stages of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The Iran Business Registry

The self-imposed economic and political isolation of the North Korean regime makes it difficult to develop and deploy effective measures to increase the diplomatic and economic isolation of North Korea. In other words, how much more isolated can North Korea get? Notwithstanding effective measures that target the financial interests of the North Korean elite, such as freezing North Korean controlled accounts in Banco Delta Asia in 2007, sanctions have had little impact on the regime.

The case is different with Iran. Comprehensive economic pressure can hurt Iran ways that it did not hurt North Korea. Iran’s economy is relatively integrated into the world markets. Thus, efforts aimed at increasing Iran’s economic isolation can have an effect. The Iranian economy has suffered from lower oil prices and continued U.S. and European sanctions. Further measures could push Iran’s economy to the brink and potentially inflame its already restive population.

The effects of existing sanctions have increased Iran’s reliance on those multinational corporations that do business in Iran. These corporations help prop up the Iranian economy, and continue to provide the regime with a veil of respectability. Iran’s reliance on these international corporations presents an opportunity. Should investors place enough pressure on these firms, they will have little choice but to cease and desist—leaving Iran without financial support.

To this end, United Against Nuclear Iran (www.UANI.org) launched the Iran Business Registry—a compilation of approximately 200 multinational corporations that do business in Iran. The goal of the IBR is not to harm legitimate businesses. Rather, it serves as a clearinghouse for private citizens to make informed purchasing, investment, and divestment decisions, and to send a message to corporations that they can either do business in the U.S. or do business with Iran.

If corporations pull out of Iran, it will send an immediate and clear message: The business community does not support a repressive regime that is developing illegal nuclear weapons and brutally suppressing the rights of its own citizens. It would also immediately begin to deny the regime a significant source of funds that indirectly support its illegal nuclear program.

Corporations like General Electric (GE) have already taken the responsible step by signing UANI’s Iran Business Declaration, thereby certifying that GE and its subsidiaries do not do business in Iran. UANI has also worked with U.S. congressmen to develop the Accountability for Business Choices in Iran Act (ABC Iran Act). This legislation would require corporations that receive taxpayer funds through federal contracts to certify that they do not conduct business with Iran.

Efforts like these can change the Iranian regime’s cost-benefit analysis of pursuing a nuclear weapon. History has shown us that private efforts by activists and policy leaders can have an important impact on various foreign policy challenges, whether Apartheid in South Africa, the Soviet Jewry movement, or more recently, genocide in Darfur. A united effort will have a similar impact on addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

David Ibsen is the coalitions director and associate director of policy for the New York-based United Against Nuclear Iran. The views expressed here are his own.