Iran and North Korea: why sanctions have worked to defuse one nuclear crisis but not the other
James Birkett says the US sanctions programme on Iran not only had support from a range of global actors, but Tehran was also more reliant on the global economy than North Korea is. A fresh approach is needed on the Korean stand-off
Two key questions of US foreign policy under President Donald Trump concern the bilateral relationships with Iran and North Korea – the surviving members of the “axis of evil” defined by George W. Bush in 2002 as he began recalibrating Washington’s relationship with the world. Today, both retain bogeyman status in the American psyche. But their responses to US sanctions have seen them take drastically different courses in their diplomatic ties with the superpower. While embargoes helped sway Tehran towards nuclear disarmament, in the case of Pyongyang, the strategy is clearly not working.
As Pyongyang threatens to test missiles capable of reaching the US territory of Guam – thereby escalating the potential for military confrontation in East Asia – Tehran is slowly re-entering the global economy following last year’s suspension of sanctions. Although Trump has publicly repudiated the nuclear agreement – refusing to recertify the deal despite Iran’s compliance – his intention is not to scrap it, just yet.
Trump has tasked Congress, which now has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions, to draw up legislative amendments setting out “trigger points” that would prompt the United States to walk away from the agreement.
Iran’s current position follows years of increasingly rigorous sanctions, which peaked in 2010 with the closure of huge areas of its economy to any form of investment. Key to this situation was the ability of the US – through a mixture of secondary sanctions and diplomatic efforts – to persuade the wider world to cooperate.
The US sanctions programme also benefited from Iran’s position as a modern economy, reliant for its key revenues on oil and gas exports as well as commercial relations with foreign partners tied to the US-dominated global financial system.
Restrictions on trading and other foreign engagement with Iran were felt across its society, especially among the growing middle class. Hassan Rowhani’s success in the 2013 presidential election and his recent re-election – on both occasions running on a platform centred on re-engagement with the US – demonstrated not only the popular support for his stance but also how much the Iranian political leadership stood to lose from the failure of the process.
With North Korea, the tightening of sanctions appears to have had the opposite effect. Pyongyang had its warmest relationship with Washington in the years leading up to Bush’s 2002 speech, as talks, initiated by Bill Clinton in 1994 and continued by Bush’s administration, secured a temporary halt to its nuclear programme. As the strictures of the sanctions programme – and accompanying US rhetoric – has intensified, so has the determination of Kim Jong-un to move forward with plans to obtain a functioning nuclear weapon and a rocket propulsion system capable of carrying it to the US mainland. On July 31, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, admitted as much, while noting that North Korea “is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity”. Last month, Trump mused publicly that the US may have to “totally destroy” North Korea if it were not possible to resolve the current impasse.
A war of words: Kim vs Trump
The North Korean sanctions programme, first instituted in 1950, is notable for the extent of its coverage. It includes an embargo on the importation of a wide variety of goods – including luxury items, petroleum and related products, various metals, and anything else that could be used to benefit the operational capacity of the North Korean armed forces. Like the Iranian programme, it is supported by a series of measures passed by the UN Security Council and by the EU and other major Western economies. So, how to explain its failure to achieve its aim of bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table? Or even its more limited goal of preventing it from making progress in building nuclear weapons?
One answer may lie in the international politics of the programme. While the US could count on the backing of a wide range of global actors in support of its action against Iran, North Korea continues to enjoy close economic ties with China, its main political sponsor. Despite signs that Beijing is increasingly equivocal about the behaviour of the government in Pyongyang, US attempts to secure its intervention have made little progress. Meanwhile, considerable media coverage in recent years has noted the regular presence in Chinese universities of North Korean scientists – reading for degrees in subjects relevant to rocketry and nuclear science – in defiance of restrictions introduced by UN sanctions in 2016.
There is a further question regarding the utility of sanctions in forcing the terms of engagement with Kim’s government. The North Korean economy grew by 3.9 per cent over the past year and, given the strength of the regime’s grip on the country, and the regular reports of human rights abuses, it is difficult to see what level of economic hardship would be required to generate meaningful domestic opposition.
Faced with overwhelming odds on the battlefield, and a seemingly implacable foe, Pyongyang may simply be making the rational calculation that a successful nuclear programme is the only means of ensuring its survival. While Trump’s aggressive approach to opposition is now a widely understood – if not fully accepted – idiosyncrasy in the West, in North Korea, it carries with it the weight of the estimated 2.5 million deaths inflicted during the war of the 1950s, in which American bombing destroyed much of the country.
A defining reason for the success of the Iranian programme was the promise of better days ahead – now being realised in resumed oil and gas revenues, and the slow resumption of trading ties with the EU. Indeed, with Iran demonstrating its willingness to make good on its obligations regarding its nuclear programme, there is an increasing sense that it will retain its improved relationship with the European Union even if Trump scraps the US side of the programme.
With North Korea, a fresh approach might improve relations, involving the following two steps: firstly, an acceptance that sanctions are, in this instance, an ineffective and potentially counterproductive tool; and, secondly, the exploration of ways to engage effectively with a country on the brink of becoming a de facto nuclear power.
Before placing economic pressure on Pyongyang, the United States must demonstrate the benefit of engagement with the international community, and that it has more to offer than violence and intimidation.
James Birkett is an associate director at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy