After Iran, is North Korea next?

Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is based on faith in Iran changing in 10 to 15 years and becoming less threatening. His approach should now be tested with North Korea.

AP Photo
Young Iranian men cheer in Tehran July 14 with a picture of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reading "Zarif is Mosaddegh of our time," comparing Zarif to Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran's legendary prime minister during the 1950s who nationalized the country's oil industry.

President Obama took a leap of faith in concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. The deal’s restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program will end in 10 to 15 years. By then, Mr. Obama presumes, Iran will be a different country, one not interested in developing nuclear weapons. While Iran has differences with the United States, he said, it is possible for the country to change.

Mark your 2025 calendars to check if Obama will have been right about Iran changing for the better. 

With a population mostly under 35 years old and very pro-American, Iran does indeed seem ripe “to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community,” as Obama put it. Half of Iran’s university graduates are women, and its semicompetitive election system has helped erode the power of the ruling mullahs since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

An early test will be elections due in February for parliament and the Assembly of Experts (the body that will select the next supreme leader). If reformist leaders win, Obama’s trust in the Iranian people as eventually nonthreatening may be on track.

In the meantime, this sort of bold diplomacy that looks to the best in one’s opponents should not be lost. It is especially needed in the effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Can it now work with North Korea, a country that has already tested several nuclear devices as well as the rockets to carry them?

After the Iran nuclear deal was announced July 14, South Korea asked North Korea to follow the path of Iran in denuclearization. 

Yet trusting North Korea to change may not be nearly as easy. Its regime is self-isolating and not very vulnerable to economic sanctions. It faces no threat of attack as Iran did from Israel or the US. It is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as Iran is, and thus sees no obligation to uphold global standards.

In addition, North Korea withdrew from a 1994 pact with the US to end its nuclear program after it violated technical aspects of the agreement. The Obama administration now refuses to talk to North Korea until it takes steps toward denuclearization. And South Korea has put on hold its investments in industries in the North, no longer hoping such an approach can encourage trust and openness.

Given the nature of North Korea’s closed society, it is difficult to know what changes might be afoot that could bring internal reform and reduce the nuclear threat. The regime of Kim Jong-un, which has made a few economic changes such as allowing farmers to keep more of their produce, appears to be facing dissent among the elite.

Obama took a risk to engage Iran and won a deal. He also did the same in restoring ties with Cuba, under the hope of reform within that cold-war adversary of the US. It may be time to reengage with North Korea, despite its claim after the Iran deal that it is not interested.

On the day before he announced the Iran nuclear deal, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, saying, “America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.” In diplomacy as in law enforcement, sometimes even a nation deserves a second chance, if one can perceive its better side.

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