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Column: Lessons of North Korea for Iran Nuclear Talks

FILE - Former North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il toasts former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a 2000 dinner in Pyongyang. The U.S.-North Korea nuclear agreement struck during the Bill Clinton administration fell apart after Clinton left office.
FILE - Former North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il toasts former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a 2000 dinner in Pyongyang. The U.S.-North Korea nuclear agreement struck during the Bill Clinton administration fell apart after Clinton left office.

Among the arguments marshaled by those wary of a nuclear agreement with Iran is that past efforts to negotiate away North Korea’s nuclear weapons program failed.

Iran’s regime, they argue, is just as untrustworthy as North Korea’s and what’s more, Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator with Iran, was also involved in talks with the North Koreans under the Bill Clinton administration and thus is somehow inherently suspect.

The critics sidestep massive differences between a small hereditary dictatorship that has already conducted nuclear tests and a large oil-rich country that has repeatedly stated that it will never develop nuclear weapons. Also, Sherman, who became involved with North Korea in Clinton’s second term, had nothing to do with negotiating a landmark nuclear agreement that was signed 20 years ago this week.

Still the criticism is worth examining because all nuclear negotiations share some characteristics, and lessons from the North Korea experience could help prevent failure with Iran.

When North Korea signed what was dubbed the Agreed Framework on Oct. 21, 1994, it promised to freeze and ultimately dismantle a program that, according to U.S. intelligence, had already given it enough plutonium for at least one nuclear weapon. It also agreed to remain within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which bars signatories that are not already declared weapons states from developing nuclear bombs. In return, North Korea was promised deliveries of heavy fuel oil and eventual construction of two light water power reactors by a U.S.-led consortium.

“We were not thinking we were going to solve all the problems of security on the [Korean] peninsula or all the problems of the regime,” Robert Galluci, the head U.S. negotiator at the time, told an audience Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. From a pure non-proliferation standpoint, Galluci said, the Agreed Framework “was a success for its time.” Without it, he said, the North Koreans would have been able to develop “an arsenal” of nuclear weapons instead of the handful of devices they are believed to possess now.

The Agreed Framework fell apart after the Clinton administration left office. Officials in the George W. Bush administration halted missile talks with North Korea that Sherman had conducted and, after a lengthy review, accused the North Koreans in 2002 of developing a secret, parallel uranium enrichment path to nuclear weapons.

The U.S. cut off deliveries of heavy fuel oil – the light water reactors were never completed -- and the North Koreans responded by kicking out weapons inspectors, quitting the NPT, restarting plutonium production and eventually conducting three tests of crude nuclear devices.

North Korea now insists that it will never give up its program and that it must be treated as a nuclear weapons state, even though it occasionally makes gestures – like this week’s release of jailed American Jeffrey Fowle – that suggest a desire to ease hostility.

Iran, in contrast, has declared that its objective is a large commercial program of power and medical reactors, not weapons. But there remain suspicions about its past research and its future intentions.

In talks with the U.S., the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, Iran is seeking to hold on to as much of its program as possible in return for capping the level of uranium enrichment and continuing to allow intrusive inspections.

If an agreement is reached, Galluci said, a key criterion is whether we can “in a timely fashion, detect violations” of the accord.

Under an interim agreement with Iran reached a year ago, there are already daily inspections of Iran’s key nuclear facilities that would undoubtedly continue under a longer-term agreement but would be scaled back if there is no deal.

Confidence-building is not only Iran’s responsibility. There are questions about whether the U.S. government will be able to fulfill its part of any bargain.

Long before North Korea was suspected of cheating, the Clinton administration struggled to get a Republican-dominated Congress to appropriate funds for the fuel oil it promised to deliver. A nuclear deal with Iran will not include this kind of aid since Iran is a major energy producer. But if Republicans take control of the Senate, they might seek to attach new conditions to an agreement.

Some in Congress are demanding an up-or-down vote on any accord reached with the Iranians. A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, said on Monday the administration already consults with Congress extensively on the Iran negotiations. He conceded that initial sanctions relief would be done by the executive action, with Congress asked to rescind nuclear-related sanctions at a later date. This, Schultz asserted, was a good thing because “suspension makes it easier to snap the sanctions back into place if the deal isn’t upheld.”

It remains to be seen if Congressional critics will buy that argument.

Another Iranian concern is about what happens after Obama leaves office.

One reason the Agreed Framework fell apart was because major figures in the Bush administration came into office much less interested in a relationship with North Korea than the Clinton White House had been. Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was publicly humiliated by the president after he promised to pick up where his predecessors left off on North Korean missile talks. Powell was obliged to tell reporters that he had been “too far forward on his skis.”

The Obama administration has been much more cohesive on Iran policy than the Bush administration was on many issues. Obama made clear from the start his desire to engage with adversaries that were willing to “unclench their fists,” as he put it in his Inaugural address.

Obama’s successor may not share his views. That is one reason the Iranians are insisting that any deal be enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution that includes a schedule for swift removal of U.N. sanctions – the basis for most international sanctions against Iran.

At this juncture, it is not yet clear whether negotiators will be able to clinch an agreement with Iran by a Nov. 24 deadline. Technical teams are meeting in Vienna to try to resolve differences over the numbers and capacity of centrifuges, stockpiles of low enriched uranium and schedule for sanctions relief.

If the negotiators are successful, however, an Iran deal should be judged the way the Agreed Framework was 20 years ago.

As Galluci said, “Are we better off with it or without it?”

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.