Dealing with North Korea is not an option

Moon Jae-in declares victory in South Korea
Moon Jae-in declares victory in South Korea

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Moon Jae-in declares victory in South Korea 01:58

Story highlights

  • Jonathan Cristol: New South Korean leader could upend US ties with key regional ally
  • Kim Jong Un knows a nuclear weapon offers more protection than piece of paper, he says

Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The election of Moon Jae-in as President of South Korea has the potential to upend the US relationship with a key regional ally. Moon does not appear to share the hard line toward North Korea of his recent predecessors and seeks greater distance and autonomy from the United States.

He is said not to favor sanctions and has called for the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex, which provided jobs and money to North Koreans. It is also possible that he will advocate a return to talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, though he has said he would not do so unilaterally.
President Donald Trump has no real Korea policy and has made many schizophrenic statements about both Koreas, but he does have a long history of advocating talks with Kim Jong Un.
It is tempting to look at the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, aka "the Iran deal," as a model for nuclear negotiations with North Korea. However, the situations are not comparable, and North Korean negotiations have a far lower likelihood of success.
Iran came to the table for two major reasons. The most obvious, but arguably not the most important, was the crippling sanctions against the regime put into place by the Obama administration and the Security Council.
These sanctions were effective, both because they were comprehensive and because the Iranian government cares about and is responsive to its own people. These conditions do not hold in North Korea, which brooks no dissent and is willing to let hundreds of thousands of its citizens starve to ensure the regime's survival.
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Perhaps more importantly, in the years before the start of negotiations in Oman, Iran's perceived need for nuclear weapons decreased. In 2007, the United States had more than 195,000 troops in states that border Iran and had just invaded two of its neighbors.
By 2014, US troop levels had decreased to just over 34,000, and the United States was clearly war-weary and not eager to invade another Middle Eastern country. The perceived threat posed by the United States to Iran had diminished and thus negotiations were more politically palatable to Iran.
North Korea's perceived need for nuclear weapons will never change. Unlike the US presence on Iran's borders, South Korea and Japan are forever. The powerful South Korean army will always be looking across the Demilitarized Zone at the North. And while the US commitment to South Korea may, after a series of tweets from Trump, be more tenuous than it has been in years, the military alliance between the United States and South Korea remains strong.
Iran does not have a history of breaking commitments to the United States. This is not to say that they are a good actor, or a positive force in international affairs, but unlike in North Korean negotiations, Iran has so far acted in good faith.
It is true that the Iranians do not abide by the spirit of their commitments, but ultimately they have lived up to their commitments. North Korea, on the other hand, has a perfect track record of violating the agreements it made regarding its nuclear program in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2012. Why should it be trusted now?
Similarly, why would North Korea trust the United States? In 2003, the United States made an agreement with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction program. Gadhafi both complied with that agreement and shared intelligence that led to the breakup of the A.Q. Khan network. Then, at the first opportunity, the United States aided in his overthrow.
Finally, perhaps the most important key difference between Iran and North Korea is that North Korea actually has nuclear weapons and Iran did not. There are few cases in which states gave up their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, one of those was Ukraine, which gave up its weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its territorial integrity.
Kim knows a nuclear weapon offers more protection to his regime than a piece of paper, and he believes he needs nukes to survive. Unless those conditions change, negotiations with North Korea are unlikely to be successful.