UN has role to play in North Korean solution
Each time North Korea feels it has slipped from international attention, it finds a guaranteed way to get back on the agenda. With its long-range missile, it has achieved what it has done regularly since the early 1990s - used threats and ignored agreements to highlight its circumstances.
Iran, like North Korea, is on the US' list of nations perceived as part of an 'axis of evil' and it has lived up to that tag by also using intimidation and shunning pacts to make its point. Yet efforts to stop Tehran's nuclear weapons proliferation would seem to be making headway because of a more intensified diplomatic approach in which Iran is never far from international attention.
That has not been the case with North Korea. Negotiations, sanctions or severed diplomatic ties have achieved little. North Korea remains one of the world's poorest countries and its people are under the thumb of a cruel dictatorship. Up to a quarter of the population of 23 million face starvation each year because of failed crops, and their leaders' isolationist policies make them among the world's most vulnerable people. Worryingly for northeast Asia, North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea and the US because it has never signed an agreement ending the 1950-53 Korean war.
Three years of six-country talks on previously headline-grabbing actions - North Korea's leaving of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarting of a mothballed reactor and claimed production of weapons-grade material - have made no headway. Pyongyang boycotted the negotiations last November when the US imposed sanctions for alleged counterfeiting and money-laundering.
The pattern is familiar. In 1998, the North broke a moratorium on testing missiles with a test-flight over Japan, and the following year agreed with the US that in return for the lifting of sanctions, no more flights would take place. In 1993 and 1994, the North played a cat-and-mouse game with the US over its nuclear programme and an agreement was reached with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to provide benefits including economic and humanitarian aid and reactors incapable of being used to help make atomic weapons.
With each deal came an international sense that the threat had been allayed. The underpinning realities of dictatorship, poverty, hunger and an unresolved war never went away, though. Talks with Iran on its determined attempt to start a reactor it claims is to produce electricity, but which observers contend is more aimed at making enriched uranium for bombs, have been going on for more than two years. As with North Korea, Iran has proved a difficult negotiator.
The international resolve to ensure Iran does not proliferate nuclear weapons has been equally determined. On June 6, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented a package of incentives and possible penalties to Tehran that had been drawn up at the highest possible level: by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. In a deal never offered to North Korea, the package calls on Iran to suspend, not permanently halt, its uranium enrichment. The threat of UN sanctions remains if Iran continues to be defiant.
While there is no guarantee that Iran will sign and then honour the agreement, it has been offered a compelling deal and has responded accordingly. Foreign Minister Manoushehr Mottaki said yesterday a 'positive atmosphere' had been created that could open the way to a deal.
Talks with North Korea have involved the US and North Korea's neighbours, but with its ability to put nuclear bombs on the end of missiles potentially capable of hitting countries within a 6,000km radius, the matter becomes an international one.
With Iran as the precedent, the best reaction to North Korea's long-range missile is clear. The UN Security Council must get involved in a bid to find an international solution.