Will the U.S. Shift on North Korea Pay Dividends for Iran?

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In what would be a remarkable reversal of policies it has adopted since taking office in 2001, the Bush Administration is reportedly now considering accepting North Korea's longstanding demand for comprehensive peace talks in parallel with negotiations over its nuclear program. Up to now the Administration's position, shaped by its hawkish faction that favors regime-change, has always been to avoid any concessions to North Korea. And even in the course of the six-party talks over its weapons program, Washington has consistently rebuffed the appeals of other key players such as China, Russia and South Korea to talk directly to the North Koreans.

But that policy has, quite plainly, failed to restrain Pyongyang's nuclear activities. Just this week, it was reported that satellite images appear to confirm that the nuclear reactor at Yongbon has been restarted, following a shut-down during which the North Koreans claim to have extracted enough fuel rods to produce possibly three to five nuclear weapons. What's really going on at Yongbon remains a mystery, since North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty forced out inspectors, and the six-party talks remain stalled since last fall.

Now, the New York Times reports, U.S. officials fear that maintaining the stalemate allows North Korea to become the poster child for resisting international pressure against going nuclear — an example that Iran might seek to emulate. But by shifting its policy against security guarantees for North Korea, the Administration could undercut its arguments against talking to Iran.

Within days of taking office, the Bush Administration's divisions over North Korea were made public: Secretary of State Colin Powell said the new administration would continue the Clinton-era policy of negotiating incentives with North Korea in exchange for verifiable steps to end all non-civilian nuclear activity. President Bush publicly repudiated Powell — and alarmed the South Korean government — warning that the North Koreans could not be trusted.

The hawks pointed to North Korean duplicity in maintaining a secret uranium enrichment program even as it claimed to be implementing agreements reached with the Clinton administration. Their stance was practically codified when the President, a year later, labeled North Korea part of his "Axis of Evil."

But if the hawks had a case against engagement, their own alternatives — sanctions and other forms of blockade to throttle the regime, or even some form of military action — had no takers. The South Koreans, whose defense is ostensibly the basis for U.S. involvement on the Korean peninsula, as well as China, strenuously opposed both options. Instead, they favor engagement and aid as the best way to ease their neighbors into the 21st century and avert the chaos that a collapse of the regime would bring. And without the support of the two countries that border North Korea, sanctions would be meaningless.

So, the U.S. opted instead for the six-party process, relying on China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to create a united front with the leverage to compel North Korea to disarm. But, while these countries shared Washington's goal of halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program, they did not share the U.S. perspective† on how to get there. China, South Korea and Russia have become increasingly open in their criticism of the Bush Administration's refusal to talk directly to North Korea, and to take regime-change off the table by offering it security guarantees in exchange for closing down nuclear weapons program.

Eventually, in September 2005, China presented Washington with a take-it-or-leave-it deal: North Korea would agree to verifiably scrap "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" and return to the Non Proliferation Treaty in return for security guarantees and a normalization of relations, as well as a package of economic and energy aid. Having thrown in its lot with the six-party process, the U.S. had little choice but to agree, even though it was hardly the outcome the hawks had hoped for.

The deal collapsed almost immediately, however, in a dispute over what the North Koreans would get and when, and it has remained stalled since then as Washington has sought to pressure Pyongyang on other fronts — such as its alleged counterfeiting of millions of dollars in U.S. banknotes — while North Korea proceeded with its nuclear work.

But if the U.S. is prepared to reverse its opposition to offering North Korea comprehensive peace talks as part of the effort to end its nuclear weapons program, pressure will mount to do the same on Iran. There, too, the U.S. is relying on a diplomatic "united front," refusing to deal directly with Iran and instead outsourcing the direct diplomacy to the EU3 — Britain, France and Germany — and needing the consent of Russia and China for any meaningful sanctions.

The parallels with the Iranian standoff are hard to miss. While its partners share Washington's concern over Iran's intentions, they want Iran to be offered security guarantees by the U.S. in exchange for Iran verifiably refraining from activities that would give it the means to create nuclear weapons. And they want Washington to talk directly with Tehran. Thus far, the Administration has rebuffed all such suggestions, but it will become a lot harder to maintain that position towards dealing with Iran if the hawks suddenly change their hardline approach to the other surviving member of the Axis of Evil.