The experience of the JCPOA is very useful and positive for the efforts of the international community to find ways to involve Pyongyang in a dialogue in order to determine a mutually acceptable formula aimed at stopping and freezing the DPRK nuclear programme, writes Alexander Vorontsov, Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
The first six months of President Biden administration demonstrated Washington’s intention to return to more classical, conservative diplomacy in the field of global WMD non-proliferation and, at the same time, a readiness for some innovations regarding the most problematic nuclear programmes on the international agenda — Iran and the Korean Peninsula. This circumstance has revived an expert interest in these problems and even given rise to expectations of some progress in their settlement.
A more decisive revision of Donald Trump’s legacy is currently seen in the approach to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian Nuclear programme (JCPOA), to which the United States has decided to return. Although there is a pause in the dialogue on the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula, Washington, at the level of rhetoric, is making curtseys to Pyongyang, calling for a meeting “anytime, anywhere.”
Since the link between the Iranian nuclear deal and the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula is obvious, it seems appropriate to consider this phenomenon in relation to modern conditions. Indeed, both the problems with the development of the DPRK and Iran’s own nuclear and military programs, and the attempts of the international community to stop, regulate and eliminate them, are interconnected via numerous threads and in various aspects.
On the one hand, almost from the very beginning of the development of these programmes and over the course of several decades, Pyongyang and Tehran have cooperated quite closely, exchanging advances in relevant technologies, especially where one of the parties achieved more significant, outstripping successes. Some foreign experts believed that Iran was more helpful to North Korea in the development of missile technology, and Pyongyang to Tehran in the field of nuclear technology. Other experts, however, believed that these processes looked quite different. But in any case, the above cooperation was mutually beneficial and complementary. Naturally, such interaction was carried out behind closed doors, bypassing both international and national sanctions when they appeared.
On the other hand, the conceptual approaches and plans for their implementation in order to stop the programmes for the creation of nuclear weapons in the DPRK and Iran on the part of the world powers and international organisations were formed “with an eye on each other”, with a careful study of the experience, both positive and negative, accumulating during the attempts to resolve both situations. This was especially evident in the process of developing decisions within the Agreed Framework between the United States and the DPRK (1994-2002), then the Six-Party Talks on the Settlement of the Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula/North Korea (2003-2009) on the one hand, and the lengthy process of developing a JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear deal, on the other.
The Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang, signed in October 1994, was undoubtedly an important stage in this long history. Although it ended in fiasco, it should never be underestimated. The period between the first Korean nuclear crisis (1993-1994) and the second, which began in early 2003, thanks to this agreement became one of the most calm and secure on the Korean Peninsula. Although the two light-water reactors promised by Washington were not completed, during their construction, as part of their interaction in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), the American, South Korean and other representatives acquired rich and unprecedentedly useful experience cooperating with the North Koreans. In particular, the American diplomats, who closely, often on a daily basis, communicated with their North Korean counterparts, even to this day are the representatives in the United States who most deeply and adequately understand the realities of North Korea (C. Cartman, R. Gallucci, K. Kenones, R. Carlin, J. Wit et al.)
The framework agreement ended in failure in late 2002, with the United States and the DPRK blaming each other for disrupting it. Therefore, it became clear to the international community that it wasn’t enough to rely on the efforts of two countries (the United States and the DPRK), although they were and will remain the main players in resolving the nuclear problem. Russia turned out to be one of the first countries that clearly realised this and voiced the idea that the bilateral framework agreement between Washington and Pyongyang lacked additional “cross” guarantees from the interested powers, which could, among other things, monitor the implementation of their obligations. As a result, Moscow put forward a plan for a comprehensive settlement of the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, which would include, in addition to the United States and the DPRK, Russia, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, other members of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General.
As a result, the next attempt, the Six-Party Talks, was launched in a multilateral format. Although they also did not end in success, many intermediate positive results were achieved over their course.
In our opinion, it is obvious that the above experience and ideas were fully used during the difficult, long-term process of the JCPOA’s preparation, and largely due to this very circumstance, great success was achieved in the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015.
It is no coincidence that even the commencement of the constructive stage in the preparation of the Iranian nuclear deal (2005) took its starting point shortly after the fiasco of the Agreed Framework and during the period of successful development of the “six-party talks” (Joint Statement, 09.19.2005)
As you know, the guarantors of the JCPOA were not only “six international mediators” (a group of 5 + 1) represented by the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China; it was “ratified” by the UN and approved by the UN Security Council. And thanks to this network of broad international guarantees, the JCPOA was not “buried” after the hard blow caused by the decision of the Trump administration in 2018 to withdraw from this agreement. Thanks to this, promising international efforts are now being made to rehabilitate this treaty. It was the mechanism of broad international guarantees that gave the JCPOA strength and vitality in the face of severe external challenges, and became its important advantage.
Undoubtedly, Pyongyang is closely following all the ups and downs in the development of the situation around the JCPOA, evaluating its pros and cons. Of course, there are more advantages.
Naturally, today no one can predict whether North Korea agrees to follow the example of the JCPOA. There are many similarities and differences in the Korean and Iranian situations. The main difference, as you know, is that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, while North Korea already does. And, as we know, stopping any state that is on the way to developing nuclear weapons is easier than forcing it to abandon its already-existing nuclear weapons.
In this regard, Washington often tries to promote, from its point of view, the “Libyan model” of renouncing nuclear weapons as a successful one. However, Pyongyang, which, unlike American politicians, sees a direct connection between this nuclear deal and the subsequent tragic events for both Gaddafi and Libya as a whole, does not consider this option as acceptable.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the experience of the JCPOA is very useful and positive for the efforts of the international community to find ways to involve Pyongyang in a dialogue in order to determine a mutually acceptable formula aimed at stopping and freezing the DPRK nuclear programme, and, in the long run, possibly compelling North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons.