Lessons from Iran for North Korea
Apr 18, 2012

Lessons from Iran for North Korea

North Korea became the biggest international story of last week when it decided to launch a satellite into space (ostensibly a weather satellite) that ultimately broke down shortly after being launched. This episode puts into peril the nascent moves towards genuine talks regarding food aid in exchange for abandoning nuclear ambitions and a denouement in tensions between the US and North Korea that were precipitated after Kim Jung Il's death and subsequent rise of his son Kim Jung Un. There is a potentially strong parallel to this situation that occurred two years ago in Iran the result of which we now know and may be instructive.

Amid the (ultimately failed) talks with Iran to try and get them to send their nuclear program outside of the country back in early 2010, Iran launched a test satellite into space carrying several animals under the putative aim of conducting science. More plausibly, the aim was to loudly demonstrate to its own people, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world, its technological progress. It is hard to gauge precisely which of many factors led to the ultimate demise of the talks (note that Iran made a relatively robust compromise deal with Brazil and Turkey that was shunned by the US in favour of implementing new sanctions). Nonetheless, shortly following this event, the talks did break down and Iran has slipped over the last two years further and further into a pariah status facing increasing commentary on the chances of war.

For North Korea, the worry is that this event will spark a situation that looks a lot like the last couple years in Iran. That is, decreasing possibilities of productive talks and increasingly belligerent rhetoric and posturing. In the North Korean case, the country is dependent on foreign food aid to feed its people. The way talks are structured are usually in the form of some level of basic food aid in exchange for progress on abandoning the nuclear program. Thus when North Korea inevitably resumes its belligerent posturing with something like firing this failed rocket, the principle group that suffers are the civilians of North Korea.

If for no other reason than that something, anything, had changed from the status quo, there was much hope when Kim Jung Un rose to power. There was a chance (although we had no real evidence or predictive ability on this question) that he would position his country differently than his father. For a short while it appeared as if this was the case. With the firing of the rocket, however, he resumes the similar holding pattern long perpetuated by his father's regime and makes it appear as if there is little reason to suspect anything different.

It is worth noting that from the perspective of the North Korean establishment, such actions have motivations and are perhaps even justified in their eyes. Kim Jung Un has a very large incentive to demonstrate to the North Korean establishment that, like his father, he is tough and capable. A willingness to defy the Americans with a saber-rattling show of military strike like the launching of a satellite is exactly the type of thing that solidifies this image. The people of North Korea are exposed to a constant monopoly of carefully constructed state media that makes George Orwell look unimaginative. In some regards, since the coverage is so blatantly biased, it doesn't matter what actually happens; nonetheless, the mythos of the deistic North Korean regime is one of unabashed military power and supremacy over the evil Japanese, South Koreans, and Americans. Being able to launch such a satellite in defiance allows for the perpetuation of this story.

The motivations are similar in Iran. The leaders in Iran gain from being able to look strong, powerful, and defiant among the establishment; this solidifies their control on power. In Iranian society, the government is considerably more accountable to its people than in North Korea, even having elections (if much less than in western standards). Anti-American and anti-western influence sentiment is quite strong within Iran (often for reasonable reasons). Many Iranians - indeed, majorities in many Middle Eastern countries - think it is a good thing for Iran to have a nuclear capacity. By appealing to these latent sentiments by appearing strong, powerful and defiant only boosts the credibility of the Iranian regime. Hence they continue these actions despite the repercussions that come from being a pariah state in the international community.

North Korea has remained in its status quo for over a half century. To break that pattern requires a different perspective and we would be naive in the extreme to think that continuing on the same path is going to result in big changes. I have previously sketched a path forward for North Korea. First, however, we have to acknowledge the situation as it is and why they act the way they do. By comparing the situation in North Korea to that in Iran - in particular the response over the last two years to Iran launching a similar satellite to the one North Korea just tried to launch - we can see how poor the inevitably western response seems to be.

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