North Korea’s Real Lessons for Iran

President Obama's defense of his emerging nuclear deal with Iran as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” reminds his critics of an earlier landmark agreement, intended to end the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and others have argued that the eventual collapse of that agreement, resulting in North Korea’s building nuclear weapons, proves that a deal with Tehran is a big mistake. Those of us who negotiated the North Korea deal know that important lessons can be learned from that experience. But they are not the ones based on the critics’ fundamental misreading of history.

Faced with the prospect of a hostile, nuclear-armed North Korea in 1994, the Clinton administration reached a deal that required the North to give up its weapons program in return for energy assistance, the lifting of sanctions and better relations with the United States. In the late 1990s, however, we caught the North Koreans cheating and, early in the George W. Bush administration, the agreement collapsed. Today, the North’s reinvigorated bomb program may be poised, as Mr. Netanyahu pointed out in his recent speech to Congress, to produce as many as 100 nuclear weapons over the next five years.

Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not. Without the 1994 deal, North Korea would have built the bomb sooner, stockpiled weapons more quickly and amassed a much larger arsenal by now. Intelligence estimates in the early 1990s concluded that the North’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. More than 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened.

The collapse of the North Korea deal has been used to argue that it is impossible to conduct diplomacy with rogue states. But the only litmus test that matters is whether an agreement serves our national interest, is better than having no deal at all, and is preferable to military force. The arrangement with Iran appears to be well on its way to meeting that standard.

The real lessons from North Korea have to do with why a deal with such a promising start ultimately collapsed. While reaching an agreement is tough, making it stick is even tougher.

The United States and its partners must avoid the “problem solved” mentality that inevitably follows landmark agreements. This mentality took hold in 1994 as senior officials moved on to deal with other foreign policy challenges while implementation, left in the hands of lower-level bureaucrats, suffered. As a result, the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions. This does not excuse the North’s behavior, but it does show these deals require constant attention.

The Iran framework is extraordinarily complex, and will require monitoring to ensure that all the moving pieces — limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, providing for inspections and lifting sanctions — are effectively implemented. One way to do this is for the United States and its partners to establish a body that meets regularly to oversee implementation.

Another lesson is that we should not be surprised if Tehran is caught cheating. While the Obama administration has emphasized the emerging agreement’s highly intrusive verification measures, the trick will be not only to catch cheating in a timely manner, but also to react with a clear plan.

We failed to do that with North Korea. When the Bush administration confronted the North about its cheating in 2002, the North simply withdrew from the agreement and restarted its nuclear program. Having just gone to war in Afghanistan and about to invade Iraq, the administration decided to start from scratch and seek new nuclear negotiations that dragged on and eventually petered out. In hindsight, President Bush could have followed the Clinton administration’s plan to confront North Korea with an opportunity rather than an accusation. That meant offering the North more progress in building better relations in return for stopping its threatening activities, including its cheating.

For Iran, we need a mechanism for resolving disputes and a plan for political, economic and possibly military steps to deal with violations that we and our partners have agreed on beforehand.

Finally, we should understand that without a positive shift in political relations, the chances that a nuclear deal will fail increase over time. We included provisions in the 1994 accord for improving relations between the United States and North Korea, but failed to recognize that four decades of hostility could not be erased overnight. Continuing tensions on issues unrelated to the nuclear agreement helped undermine the deal.

The same danger exists with Iran, given its hostility to American and Israeli interests in the Middle East. Of course, North Korea and Iran are very different politically; Tehran, along with hard-liners, has a young and increasingly vocal reform movement. That may be reason for hope. But whether that difference will translate into future moderation in Iranian foreign policy remains uncertain.

As American negotiators move toward a final agreement with Iran by the end of June, they are right to look to our experience with North Korea. But they should ignore the critics who say that the lesson is to abandon diplomacy. Diplomacy can succeed with political will and sustained focus. We just need to remember that the deal itself is only the beginning.

Robert L. Gallucci, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, was the chief negotiator for the 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea. Joel S. Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, was the coordinator for the deal from 1995 to 1999.

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