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North Korea and Iran: How the two states test US diplomacy

North Korea is seen as an unpredictable 'spoiled child.' Iran is seen as a rational but aggressive nation. Each have nuclear programs, but pose unique problems for US security.

By / Staff writer, / Staff writer, Donald Kirk/ correspondent / December 12, 2010

North Korea and Iran present multiple challenges to US foreign policy

Photo illustration by John Kehe

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Washington; Istanbul, Turkey; Seoul, South Korea

Likening North Korea to a "spoiled child" was nothing new.

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But in the April 2009 US diplomatic cable from Seoul to Washington, the comparison of the backward and unpredictable regime in Pyongyang to a child acting up in an attempt to get attention was remarkable because of who had made it: He Yafei, the Chinese vice foreign minister.

A year later, another cable depicting a conversation between the South Korean vice foreign minister and senior Chinese officials would suggest that Beijing was tiring of its role as a lifeline to a withering Pyongyang, and was warming to the idea of a reunited Korea under the South's control.

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The cables – a small piece of the mammoth cache of diplomatic communications released last month by the truth-out organization WikiLeaks – represented from Washington's perspective a bit of promising news in one of the world's most intractable and dangerous confrontations. Or at least they were until North Korea decided in November to rain down artillery fire onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, putting North Asia once again at the brink of something that could potentially degenerate into nuclear war.

But what the cables also suggested, in the way they presented China as a glimmer of hope in the North Korea crisis, was the dearth of good options the United States has to choose from as it seeks to address the challenges posed by an aggressive and misbehaving state that happens to possess nuclear weapons. The same intractability characterizes another relationship the US faces in an even more unstable part of the world – the three decades of antagonism with Iran.

In a world of more than 190 nations, many of them problematic, North Korea and Iran remain in a class of their own for the US – charter members of the "rogue states" club, a list that has dwindled over the past decade with the subtraction of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and a defanged Libya.

The particulars of the North Korean and Iranian challenges make them different in significant ways. But in an era when non-state actors like Al Qaeda have emerged as top international security threats, North Korea and Iran remain the two starkest outliers in the global community of states because of several factors they share in common – factors that make them particularly difficult to address.

Both North Korea and Iran remain in long and hardened conflicts with the US, the world's sole superpower. Both are sustained economically in a manner that staves off collapse – North Korea by its patron state, China; Iran by its oil wealth. Both have an identity that makes reconciliation with outside adversaries more difficult. North Korea appears motivated by a desire to safeguard a regime of privileged elites, while Iran sees itself as a global rebel with a cause: the leader of a broad Islamic revolution and defiant promoter of a new global order no longer dominated by traditional powers.

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