North Korean Diplomatic Strategy Mirrors Iran's
David E. Sanger, The New York Times:
For years North Korea has supplied Iran with missile technology, and late last year the White House told American intelligence agencies to evaluate the danger that the North Koreans might be tempted to sell their nuclear expertise — or a bomb's worth of plutonium — to the Iranians.
But in the past few days, it has become clear that the two countries are also pursuing similar diplomatic strategies. North Korea's threat to launch a long-range ballistic missile seems a clear echo of Iran's recent strategy of resuming production of nuclear fuel. Iran was aiming to extract concessions from the Bush administration, and it has already won some modest diplomatic gains. READ MORE
But for North Korea, both the power and the risks of a move carried out in full view of commercial and spy satellites have now become evident. Either because of bad weather or sudden political indecision in the capital, Pyongyang, the missile has stayed on the launching pad.
The very public act of rolling out a new missile — one that might prove capable of hitting the United States, or, alternatively, might fall into the Pacific — has succeeded in getting the world to focus on North Korea. That must be seen as progress for the North, after months in which Iran's nuclear program — far less developed than North Korea's — has grabbed all the headlines.
But the delay, along with warnings from nations around the world about what might happen if North Korea presses the button, has led some to speculate that Kim Jong Il, the country's reclusive leader, may be reconsidering his options. His last missile test, over Japan in 1998, led the Clinton administration into negotiations and a mild relaxation of penalties against the country. But Bush administration officials and Asian diplomats say it is unlikely that North Korea can now extract similar concessions. "What they are doing right now is very calculated," said Gary Samore, who directed the nonproliferation office of the National Security Council under President Clinton. "They probably view the American offer to talk to Iran last month as an admission of weakness."
But Mr. Samore, no admirer of the Bush administration's approach to the North, said that even if North Korea was seeking to mimic the Iranian strategy, "I don't think it will work — I suspect they are misreading us, again."
The two countries' influence on each other has been a two-way street. Earlier this year Iran threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and evict all inspectors if it felt it was under too much pressure from the West. North Korea did withdraw from the treaty three years ago.
A senior administration official who deals with the nuclear programs of both countries, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence issues, said Friday, "I think they do pay a lot of attention to how the steps taken by the other work out." But he said that the countries have had "a rocky relationship" at times, and that threatening missile tests "has been in the North Korean playbook for some time."
The North Koreans know the Iranians, and their weapons programs, intimately. Iran's missiles are based on the North Korean Rodong, a medium-range missile. North Korean engineers are often sighted at Iranian facilities. "It is widely believed that the North Koreans have offered to sell Taepodong 1 and 2 to Iran, and if the thing works, it might make the Iranians more interested in buying more than blueprints," Mr. Samore said. "This whole test could be good for North Korean sales." Taepodong missiles have a much longer range than the Rodong and are capable of carrying larger payloads.
That has made the North Korea-Iran trading routes a prime target of the administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, and American officials say they foiled an Iranian effort to load one of its cargo planes on North Korean soil.
But the study ordered by the White House about whether the two countries might expand their business relationship to nuclear materials ended inconclusively. Just as the American offer to Iran was coming together last month, American satellites over North Korea began spotting the move of the Taepodong 2 missile to the launching pad. And just as the Iranians claimed they had full legal rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to produce uranium, the North Koreans insist that they have the right to test missiles, even though they promised a moratorium on such flights in 1999. North Korea's aim for the past five years has been to force the Bush administration into one-on-one talks, something President Bush has always refused to agree to. For the first three years of his administration, he refused to deal with the country at all. That led to the bold move by North Korea in January 2003, when it threw out the inspectors and seized 8,000 spent fuel rods from a storage facility that had been sealed since a 1994 agreement with Mr. Clinton.
The North claims to have converted all those rods into bomb-grade plutonium, a boast that the administration says it has to take at face value. Ultimately, Mr. Bush came to the table — but not alone, agreeing to negotiations that also included Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. The North Koreans reluctantly joined the sessions, and signed a statement of principles — disarmament in return for a list of benefits. But since then, almost everything has fallen apart. The North Koreans have not gone back to the talks, refusing entreaties from China to return until Washington ends financial penalties that it had imposed to stop sales of missiles, drugs and counterfeit dollars.
And then the American focus switched to Iran, where the Bush administration signed off last month on an offer to provide Western-made light-water nuclear reactors, promises of economic engagement and a lifting of sanctions, if Iran agreed to suspend its production of uranium.
That American approach to Iran looked a lot like the now-dead deal the North negotiated with the Clinton administration 12 years ago. "You could almost hear the North Koreans saying, 'Wait a minute, we can't get in to talk to the Americans, and the Iranians get the whole nine yards,' " said Robert L. Gallucci, the dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the lead negotiator of the 1994 accord.