North Korea and Iran: The Case for Formal Relations

November 2, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Chronicles Magazine.

The United States faces twin crises involving nuclear proliferation, as both North Korea and Iran seem poised to barge into the global nuclear‐​weapons club. (Indeed, there are indications that North Korea may have already done so, since it has processed enough plutonium to build as many as 13 weapons.) Washington’s policy toward those two rogue states has followed a familiar pattern. The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with either country, and it has entered into negotiations with those regimes only with great reluctance and following intense prodding by long‐​standing U.S. allies.

That policy is unwise. It may be emotionally satisfying to refuse to recognize the current North Korean and Iranian governments, since one would be hard‐​pressed to identify two more odious regimes in the international system. All people who value freedom and basic respect for human dignity hope that those governments end up on the ash heap of history as soon as possible. Nevertheless, refusing to maintain any formal relationship with Iran and North Korea when those countries are poised to become nuclear‐​weapons powers is potentially very dangerous.

Washington has never recognized North Korea’s communist regime since it seized power (with Moscow’s assistance) after World War II. Any chance that U.S. leaders might adopt a more flexible policy disappeared when Pyongyang’s forces attacked noncommunist South Korea in June 1950 in an effort to forcibly unify the Peninsula under communism. Although the United States has occasionally negotiated with North Korea (most notably the 1994 agreement freezing that country’s nuclear program), the principal focus of U.S. policy has been to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically and maintain a system of rigorous economic sanctions. Even when other countries such as Japan, China, Russia, and the major European powers recognized both Korean states following the end of the Cold War, Washington did not follow suit.

When the current nuclear crisis erupted in the autumn of 2002, the Bush administration initially refused to talk to Pyongyang at all. During the early months of the confrontation, Washington’s position was unyielding: there would be no talks whatsoever with Pyongyang until it stopped violating the 1994 Agreed Framework and allowed outside inspections to verify that it was complying with all provisions of the agreement. When it became evident that North Korea was accelerating the revival of its nuclear‐​weapons program, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea all urged Washington to drop its demand and talk to Pyongyang. The United States finally responded to such pressure (especially the pressure exerted by its allies) and shifted tactics in early 2003. Following a meeting with Japanese and South Korean diplomats, the State Department announced that it would agree to direct talks with Pyongyang. U.S. officials stressed, however, that such “talks” would in no way constitute “negotiations.”

Most experts believed that that was a distinction without a difference. Eventually, Washington agreed to direct negotiations with Pyongyang, but only within a multilateral framework. The North’s nuclear‐​weapons program menaced all of its neighbors, Washington argued, and all should play a role in any diplomatic sessions with Pyongyang. Conversely, North Korea insisted that it was interested only in bilateral talks with the United States. A compromise was reached in which all formal negotiations would take place within the framework of 6‐​party talks (involving Russia, China, Japan and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States), but U.S. and North Korean delegates could conduct informal, bilateral “discussions” on the side. The 6‐​party talks have now dragged on for more than three years with meager progress.

Washington’s relationship with Iran over the decades has been almost as rocky as its interaction with North Korea. After a coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency ousted a democratic government and restored the Shah to his throne, Tehran and Washington became close allies for the next quarter century. That situation changed dramatically when an Islamic revolution drove the Shah into exile in early 1979. A few months later, tensions rose dramatically when an Iranian mob (with the apparent connivance of the new government) stormed the U.S. embassy and took American diplomats hostage. They were not freed until January 1981, and the United States and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations since the onset of the hostage incident. Indeed, the atmosphere between the two governments has been one of intense animosity throughout the intervening decades.

The lack of a formal relationship has become a significant issue since evidence began to mount in the past three years that Tehran was pursuing a program to develop nuclear weapons. Yet Washington made no move to engage the Iranian regime in negotiations or even substantive discussions. Indeed, until the spring of 2005, Bush administration officials discouraged the three leading powers of the European Union (Britain, France, and Germany) from negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. Washington reluctantly endorsed the diplomatic efforts of the “EU-3” only after extracting a commitment from them to support stronger measures against Tehran if diplomacy failed to produce the desired result. Despite prodding from London, Paris, and Berlin, the Bush administration steadfastly refused to participate in the ongoing negotiations.

Tehran’s efforts to thaw relations with Washington also were rebuffed. In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Iranian regime expressed a willingness to work with the United States to undermine the Taliban government and its Al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. After initially exploring that possibility, the administration spurned the overtures. The degree of hostility directed against Tehran was reflected in President Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union Address when he linked Iran, North Korea, and Iraq as the “Axis of Evil.” There was one more opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough. Using intermediaries, the Iranian government reportedly proposed in early 2003 to turn over numerous Al Qaeda leaders that Tehran was holding prisoner in exchange for Washington’s willingness to begin the process of normalizing political and economic relations between the two countries.

Washington’s reluctance to engage in any negotiations with Iran has eased only in the past few months. Indeed, as recently as early May, the Bush administration seemed uninterested in any dialogue, even on the crucial nuclear issue. That was evident when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a lengthy letter to President Bush–the first communication to an American chief executive from an Iranian head of state since the 1979–81 hostage episode. It was a curious document–a rambling 18‐​page treatise on history, religion, politics, and world affairs. As a foundation for serious, substantive negotiations on the Iranian nuclear crisis, the letter was decidedly inadequate.

Nevertheless, Washington’s response was disappointing and short‐​sighted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed the letter even before it had been translated. President Bush’s reaction was not much better. He criticized it for not answering “the question the international community is asking.” Namely, “when will Iran give up its nuclear program?” The White House emphasized that there would be no reply to the letter. In other words, unless Iran’s leaders were willing to preemptively surrender on the issue that was the principal U.S. grievance, Washington was not interested in any dialogue with Tehran.

A few days following Ahmadinejad’s letter, Time magazine published an open letter from Hassan Rohani, representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. That letter was considerably more focused and substantive than Ahmadinejad’s effort, and was another indication that the Iranians wanted meaningful discussions with Washington.

Abruptly in early June, the Bush administration altered its position–at least slightly–by agreeing to join the EU-3 negotiations with Tehran. The reason for that policy shift is not clear, but it is the first encouraging sign in decades.

Yet one should not attach too much importance to Washington’s apparent greater diplomatic flexibility. There is no indication that it will lead to anything even resembling a normal political and economic relationship between the two countries.

The North Korean and Iranian situations highlight a broader problem in the way that the United States deals with difficult and repressive adversaries. One should have no illusions. The current North Korean and Iranian governments are two especially brutal, hostile, and odious regimes. North Korea is little more than a giant slave labor camp, and Pyongyang routinely imprisons, tortures, and executes people suspected of opposing communist rule in the slightest. Tehran’s policy of supporting groups that use terrorist tactics is reprehensible, and Ahmadinejad’s hateful screeds against Israel are both bizarre and repulsive.

But the United States does not have the luxury of engaging only pleasant, democratic, and tolerant governments. One of the great challenges of effective diplomacy is to deal with, and get results from, regimes that most Americans would prefer did not exist. Unfortunately, that is an unpleasant reality that seems to elude recent generations of U.S. policymakers.

Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, Washington’s typical response to unfriendly, repressive governments (especially of small countries) is to try to isolate and berate them. Before Wilson, the general U.S. practice was to deal with any government that controlled a country, whether we liked the regime or not. That policy was far more realistic and productive. The current approach is akin to the maturity level one would expect from an elementary school student: “I don’t like you, and I’m not going to speak to you.”

That strategy has produced utterly unsatisfying results. For more than two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Washington did not have diplomatic relations with Hanoi, even though Vietnam was a significant political and military player in Southeast Asia. We have pursued a similar policy of truculence toward Cuba for 4 ½ decades, without dislodging the Castro regime’s grip on power.

We have adopted the same futile approach toward North Korea and Iran, even though both countries are on the brink of entering the global nuclear‐​weapons club. Consider that for a moment. We have no relations with two countries that may soon have nuclear arsenals (and in North Korea’s case, may already have one). That is not only foolish, it is profoundly dangerous. The lack of effective communication invites misunderstanding, miscalculation, and potential disaster.

Normalizing relations would at least reduce those dangers. As it is, Washington has no reliable mechanism even for gathering information from Tehran and Pyongyang.. When North Korea showed signs of preparing to test a long‐​range ballistic missile in June 2005, the United States wanted to find out what the payload was. It had to ask China to make inquiries on our behalf. If normal diplomatic relations existed, the White House could have instructed the U.S. ambassador in Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​il, express strong U.S. opposition to any missile test, and press him to at least disclose the nature of the payload and the purpose of the test–for example, was it intended to be a satellite launch or a military test.

In addition to enhancing dialogue and reducing the potential for miscalculation, formal diplomatic relations would give the United States greater opportunity to penetrate the host regimes and gather information. To put it bluntly, it would make it much easier to spy on those potential adversaries. As it is, the United States apparently has few, if any, intelligence operatives in North Korea and relies almost entirely on South Korea for information about the North. The meager spy network the United States had in Iran reportedly was rolled up a few years ago due to betrayal by a double agent. In short, Washington is largely operating blind in dealing with both nuclear crises.

Establishing embassies in Pyongyang and Tehran would give the United States far greater opportunities for espionage. The reality is that a significant number of U.S. diplomats posted in foreign countries are intelligence agents. The same would be true in Iran and North Korea if we had a diplomatic presence there. For that benefit, if no other, the United States should try to normalize relations with the two countries.

The standard objection is that it would confer legitimacy on odious regimes. But diplomatic recognition by itself in no way implies that Americans consider the other government to be moral and freedom loving. The United States has relations with China and Saudi Arabia–hardly paragons of political liberalism and enlightenment. Maintaining a diplomatic relationship merely accepts the reality (as unpleasant as it might be) that the government in question controls a country that is relevant (in a positive or negative way) to important American interests. The current political system in North Korea has been in power for more than 60 years, the one in Iran for 27 years. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, it is time to make the best of bad situations. We should move to normalize relations with both countries as soon as possible.

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