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Nuclear deal? New North Korea and Iran pact raises international concern

North Korea and Iran appear to be deepening their nuclear technology relationship under a new agreement reached between the two nations that President Bush labelled part of an 'axis of evil.'

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Later that same year, the confrontation with North Korea reached a critical stage with the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, under which North Korea had shut down its five-megawatt reactor and stopped producing plutonium for warheads. The Geneva agreement fell apart after the revelation in October 2002 that North Korea had an entirely separate, and secret, program for developing highly enriched uranium .

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Use of the term “axis of evil” was widely criticized description of the growing relationship between Iran and Pyongyang as tensions rapidly rose between them and the United States.  Mr. Bush himself did not use it again while encouraging six-party talks, hosted by Beijing, for North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for a massive infusion of aid. Besides the US, China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and Japan also joined in the talks, culminating in 2007 in agreements for North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

“I’ve never been a fan of the axis-of-evil concept,” says Stephen Bosworth, former US envoy on the North Korea issue, visiting Seoul, South Korea, this week. He adds, however, that Tehran and Pyongyang constitute “a dangerous problem” since North Korea never honored the 2007 agreements and also violated an agreement reached between US and North Korean envoys in Beijing on Feb. 29 by test-firing a long-range missile April 13.

“It’s never reassuring to see two countries like Iran and North Korea talking to each other,” says Mr. Bosworth. “Clearly at this point formal diplomacy with North Korea has come to an abrupt halt.”

The failure of the February leap-year agreement "adds to the general skepticism about engagement with North Korea,” says Bosworth. He predicts “a process of watchful waiting over the next few months” to see if North Korea will want to return to talks with South Korea, which elects a new president in December, and with the US, which is expected to look for openings for talks regardless of who wins the US presidential election.

Analysts warn, however, that an escalation of dealings between Iran and North Korea may backfire. The agreement “doesn’t serve the interests of either power,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University, in South Korea. “This is one reason for tougher sanctions on Iran. On the North Korea side, this would rule out any cooperation with the US.”

Getting around sanctions?

One question is how North Korea and Iran get around sanctions and also get past US and other vessels blocking passage by sea under terms of the multination proliferation security initiative.

“Yes, some of these sales are going through merchant shipping that transits Chinese ports,” says Bechtol. “Other shipments are likely going on transport aircraft that transit through other countries.”

And, he adds, “Of course, the North Koreans also likely use merchant ships to proliferate a variety of technology and military equipment to Iran that follow routes through the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.”

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Iran


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