Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux

Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux, Commentary Magazine, March 1, 2015

(There are additional parallels. North Korea and Iran have comparable views of human rights, both make loud and frequent noises about obliterating their perceived enemies and both have allies willing if not anxious to sneak around sanctions. There are also differences. Iran is far more powerful than North Korea was or is and Iran’s intention to dominate the Middle East transcends North Korea’s desire to “unify” with South Korea on North Korea’s terms. Iranian governance is based on Islam, an unfortunately powerful world religion seeking world domination. North Korean governance is based on the “religion of Kim,” supreme internally but otherwise of little significance elsewhere. Iran also presents a greater danger to the U.S. than North Korea did. However, Obama won’t explain why the Iran deal isn’t “North Korea redux” because he quite likely neither knows nor cares and because it is. — DM)

The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.


As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when North Korea announced that it would no longer allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that it would withdraw from the NPT altogether within a matter of months. If Kim Il-sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price. Chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his aides explained in their book Going Critical, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, Clinton’s team sought to talk Pyongyang away from nuclear defiance, no matter that talking and the inevitable concessions that followed legitimized Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.

As with President Obama relieving Iran of the burden of six United Nations Security Council resolutions which demanded a complete cessation of enrichment, Clinton’s willingness to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was itself a concession. After all, the 1953 Armistice required Pyongyang to reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began.

Just as Israeli (and Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian and Kuwaiti and Bahraini) leaders express frustration with the Obama administration regarding its naiveté and unwillingness to consult, so too did South Korea at the time chafe at Clinton’s arrogance. South Korean President Kim Young Sam complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time.” And in a pattern that repeats today with regard to Iran, the IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to real inspections than did Washington. The issue came to a head in September 1993 after the State Department pressured the IAEA to compromise on limited inspections.

In the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, Clinton was also wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Just as President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel instructed U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf not to stand firm but rather to retreat if probed or pushed by Iran, Clinton sought to mollify Pyongyang, for example cancelling the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise in 1994. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration criticized the South Korean government for being unwilling to compromise. Indeed, everything the Obama administration has done with regard to Israel over the past year—with the exception, perhaps, of the classless chickensh-t comment—was ripped right from the Clinton playbook two decades before when the White House sought to silence Seoul.

There followed months of baseless optimism in Washington, followed by disappointment quickly supplanted by denial. At one point, when it looked like Kim Il-sung’s intransigence might actually lead to war, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and, whether cleared to or not, made concessions which diffused the situation. It was the diplomatic equivalent of Obama’s voided redlines. Nightlinehost Ted Koppel observed on May 18, 1994, “this administration is becoming notorious … for making threats and then backing down.”

On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, took over. Negotiations progressed quickly. Gallucci and his team promised an escalating series of incentives—reactors, fuel oil, and other economic assistance. They kicked inspections of North Korea’s suspect plutonium sites years down the line.

What had begun as North Korean intransigence had netted Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid; it would go down in history as the largest reward for cheating and reneging on agreements until Obama granted Iran $11 billion in sanctions relief just for coming to the table. Columnist William Safire traced the steps of concessions on North Korea. “Mr. Clinton’s opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power,” he observed, but Clinton “soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and stoutly threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed. But as a result of Clinton’s Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years.” And Sen. John McCain, for his part, lamented that Clinton “has extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession, and pursued a policy of appeasement based … on the ill-founded belief that North Koreans really just wanted to be part of the community of nations.” Again, the parallels between Clinton’s and Obama’s assumptions about the desire of enemies to reform were consistent.

Clinton wasn’t going to broker any criticism of what he believed was a legacy-defining diplomatic triumph, all the more so when the criticism came from abroad. On October 7, 1994, South Korean President Kim Young Sam blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said. His outburst drew Clinton’s ire. He became the Netanyahu of his day. Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Gallucci and his team were “exhilarated.” They later bragged they “had overcome numerous obstacles in the negotiations with the North; survived the intense, sometimes strained collaboration with Seoul and the International Atomic Energy Agency; and marshaled and sustained an often unwieldy international coalition in opposition to the nuclear challenge, all under close and often critical scrutiny at home.”

Today, by some estimates, North Korea is well on its way to having 100 nuclear weapons and is steadily developing the ballistic capability to deliver them. Iran’s nuclear negotiators have cited North Korea’s negotiating strategy as a model to emulate rather than an example to condemn. Meanwhile, Obama has relied on many of the same negotiators to advance his deal with Iran.

The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.

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3 Comments on “Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux”

  1. Tyrannovar Says:

    Nice comparison. One point is just a point. Two points make a line. A few more points and we begin to see the whole picture.

    “Lessons Learned” ?
    What’s the point? Before lessons learned has any value you first have to assume that the players have the best interest of the United States at heart, that they were making a sincere effort to do what was right but just made a mistake and now, in hindsight, can find their mistake and make corrections in the future. In the case of Obama the assumption that he has America’s best interest at heart would be a false assumption. In the case of Clinton it would also be a false assumption.

    “Deception: How Clinton Sold America Out to the Chinese Military”
    — Charles R. Smith
    Barnes and Noble

    Clinton was the one who gave away American nuclear technology to the Communist Chinese for his thirty pieces of silver, i.e. contributions to his election campaign and to his Clinton Library.

    Clinton was also the one who went to war against Serbia and sided with the Bosnian Muslims all for the high minded purpose of advancing his Caspian oil pipeline deal.

    After all Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. Why do you think Cecil Rhodes set up the Rhodes scholarship in the first place? He was not trying to help American politicians. He was trying to create GLOBALIST politicians. Clinton doesn’t have the best interest of America at heart, he mostly has the best interest of Bill Clinton at heart but he advances his own interests by carrying water for the globalists, not by Standing up for America.

    Obama is even more of a threat than Clinton, because in addition to his globalist Islamo/Communist leanings he also has a hatred for his own country and seeks to do whatever he can to diminish America and favor it’s enemies.

    Don’t take everything Clinton and Obama say at face value, they lie.

  2. A nuclear Iran is much worse than a nuclear North Korea! Why? Because North Koreans are communists and they do not believe in an afterlife. The MAD doctrine still works with North Korea. Not so with the Iranian Twelvers. There a groups in Iran for whom MAD is not a deterrent but and inducement!

    Have members of Congress seen this Bernard Lewis clip from 2009?

    Bernard Lewis is the world’s foremost Western scholar of Islam today.


    That is extremely important for another, not immediately related reason. That is the question of Iran’s nuclear weapon. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons right through the Cold War, but neither side used them because both sides were aware that if either one did the other would do the same and this would lead to mutual destruction – MAD as it was known at the time. Mutual assured destruction was the main deterrent preventing the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets For most of the Iranian leadership MAD would work as a deterrent, but for Ahmadinejad and his group with their apocalyptic mindset mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement

    הענין הוא בעל חשיבות עצומה מסיבה נוספת והיא הנשק הגרעיני של אירן. לאורך כל שנות המלחמה הקרה, היה בידי ברית המועצות נשק גרעיני. אף צד לא העז להשתמש בנשק זה, כי היה ברור שהתקפה גרעינית תגרור אחריה תגובה גרעינית אשר תוביל בהכרח להשמדה הדדית. הכרה זו היוותה הגורם הראשי אשר הרתיע את הסובייטים משימוש בנשק גרעיני. עבור מרבית ההנהגה האיראנית, אותה הכרה תהווה גם כן גורם מרתיע. לעומת זאת, עבור אחמדינג’אד וחבורתו, אנשים בעלי השקפת עולם אפוקליפטי, ההבטחה הטמונה בהשמדה הדדית איננה נחשבת גורם מרתיע אלא גורם מזרז ותמריץ לשימוש בנשק גרעיני.

  3. Tyrannovar Says:

    I AGREE that Islam is more dangerous than Communism because Islam is fundamentally delusional and unrealistic and ascribes no value to life on Earth but only assigns value to what Allah desires, Insha’Allah. Communism is basically a way for a small group to make slaves of the rest of humanity. Of course the Communist leaders care nothing for their slaves, but they do want to continue their own existence on Earth as long as possible.

    But do not underestimate how much death and destruction the Communists are willing to cause. The death toll from Communism is already over 100 million in the Twentieth Century. And they were willing to slaughter far far more. Read this quotation from Mao


    (66% death toll? That’s 2 billion people dead)

    “Do not be alarmed either if there should be war. It would merely mean getting people killed and we’ve seen people killed in war. Eliminating half of the population occurred several times in China’s history. The 50 million population in the time of Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty was reduced to 10 million by the time of the Three Kingdoms, the two Chin Dynasties and the North and South Dynasties. The war lasted for decades and intermittently for several hundred years, from the Three Kingdoms to the North and South Dynasties. The T’ang Dynasty began with a population of 20 million and did not reach 50 million until Emperor Hsuan. And Lu-shan staged a revolt and the country was divided into many states. It was not reunited until the Sung Dynasty, some 100 or 200 years later, with a population of just over 10 million…. Not very many people were killed in the two World Wars, 10 million in the first and 20 million in the second, but we had 40 million killed in one war. So, how destructive were the big swords! We have no experience in atomic war. So, how many will be killed cannot be known. The best outcome may be that only half of the population is left and the second best may be only one-third. When 900 million are left out of 2.9 billion, several five-year plans can be developed for the total elimination of capitalism and for permanent peace. It is not a bad thing”.

    (Mao’s Second Speech to the Party Congress, May 17, 1958)


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