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Nuclear aspirants able to withstand punishing sanctions might also succeed

Washington's treatment of the Iran deal will be closely watched by Pyongyang

CNN  — 

Among the many strides North Korea has made in its development of nuclear weapons it can add another disquieting distinction: the precedent it’s set for other rogue states who covet nuclear weapons.

“If North Korea continues to progress in developing nuclear weapons we are giving hope to countries that might have this ambition,” Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization said in a recent interview with CNN.

“It is my hope that multilateral diplomacy will prevail and that we’ll be able to stop them as soon as possible,” Zerbo said. “This should be seen as the last wake up call to stop this endeavor by North Korea, so that no other country can pretend, or try to do explosive testing towards the build up of a nuclear weapon.”

Nevertheless, as the isolated state and its adversaries tread ever closer to a military denouement, there is now a reality – whether it is recognized officially or not – that North Korea has attained nuclear status and whatever deterrence the US, South Korea and the rest of the international community might concoct to prevent those weapons from finding flight, the message to nuclear aspirants is clear.

“If you make a lot of steady, quiet progress, and you have very strong incentives to get nuclear weapons and you just keep your head down and barrel ahead and withstand whatever sanctions come your way, eventually you can get to the other side,” said Devin Hagerty, professor of political science and the founding director of the global studies program at the University of Maryland.

“But I also think that for every nuclear aspirant there is a unique set of incentives and disincentives to work from,” he told CNN.

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The lessons of Libya and Iraq

The uniqueness of North Korea’s predicament is a significant reason why other states might not be able to follow suit, said David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at the Walsh School for Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

“What other country is in North Korea’s position, and what other country would have the conditions that would allow it to have weapons and not end up like Libya or Iraq or somebody else?” Maxwell asked. “There’s very few countries that have that, that can make conventional military threats that allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons without a significant response.”

Conventional military threats, he said, included the regular risk of a border dispute with Seoul, something Maxwell contends “caused strategic paralysis on the part of South Korea, the US and the international community – no one wanted to risk going to war, so we weren’t willing to take action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.”

The unique circumstances surrounding North Korea’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons stand in stark contrast to the fate of other would-be developers like Syria and Iraq, countries that found their embryonic facilities quickly obliterated in Israeli air strikes.

Saudi Arabia, vying for dominance in the Middle East against nuclear-obsessed Iran, has also long had an eye for adding a nuclear element to its burgeoning weapons stores.

“Saudi Arabia’s case,” said Hagerty, “won’t be driven by what happens with North Korea. They’re going to base their decisions on national interests and their position in the Middle East, and that Israel has a policy to take out nascent nuclear weapons programs of nearby countries.”

At the White House at least, the temptation for any country to make such an attempt is dangled before them every time North Korea conducts a military test, something national security adviser H.R. McMaster recognizes.

“Their provocations seem likely to increase – not decrease – over time. The North Koreans have also proliferated just about every capability they’ve ever produced, including chemical weapons and a nuclear reactor,” McMaster said in a recent interview with the New Yorker. “Then there’s the matter of what other countries do – in the region and beyond – when they see that a rogue regime developed nukes and got away with it.”

North Korea’s new standing as a nuclear power is one the White House can no longer deny, says Maxwell.

“I think that’s part of the problem,” he told CNN. “The international community has painted itself into a corner since 1994 (when a deal between the Clinton administration and Pyongyang was signed, but which later fell apart). We’ve said the North can’t have nuclear weapons, we’ve used this rhetoric and we’ve had no means to prevent it, and this goes back to the assumption that North Korea wasn’t going to last so we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Indeed, when Kim Jong Il died from a heart attack in December 2011, the confusion over who would succeed him threw into question efforts to engage North Korea in negotiations.

There was concern that Kim Jong Un, the inexperienced successor, would face challenges to his leadership upon assuming the reins. In the years that followed, he led a purge of senior officials that included most notably, Jang Song Thaek, an uncle by marriage. Analysts at the time oscillated between declaring that Kim was struggling to maintain control of the party, to insisting he had consolidated power and had become a force to be reckoned with.

In March 2012 at a nuclear security summit in Seoul then-US President Barack Obama pressed China and Russia to do more to curb Pyongyang, which was launching a satellite that purportedly breached international regulations. North Korea announced the move even as food aid was slated to arrive to feed desperately hungry North Koreans. “We need to have a serious conversation with the North Koreans where they understand that we’re going to do things differently in the future,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes at the time.

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Obama ‘essentially unwilling to engage’

In a speech in Seoul to university students during that visit, Obama warned Pyongyang that if the regime didn’t shift from its quest for nuclear weapons there would be “more broken dreams, more isolation, ever more distance between the people of North Korea and the dignity and the opportunity that they deserve.”

“Your provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not achieved the security you seek,” he said. “They have undermined it.”

North Korea’s calculation of what the regime could expect from the international community changed when it realized Obama was “essentially unwilling to engage with them in a big way,” said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent and current senior fellow at the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons were its guarantee that the regime would survive any existential threats.

“The fact that they have succeeded raises the question about whether you can have an effective non proliferation regime, and I do think there’s a message to other countries that if you acquire a nuclear capability the Americans will be hard-pressed to stop it,” said Chinoy.

“If the Americans now sabotage the Iran agreement for example, the message is going to be again to countries or elsewhere, that even if you do try to do a deal, and even if the deal is win-win, even that they throw away,” Chinoy remarked.

US President Donald Trump must tell Congress next month if he believes Iran is meeting its obligations under the nuclear accord. Under the deal Tehran has committed to scaling back its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has said she wouldn’t be surprised if Trump declared that Iran wasn’t complying because the deal was “very flawed, very limited.”

North Korea will be watching to see how the administration treats the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump has called “the worst deal ever.” To Pyongyang it would be a sign of American intentions towards nuclear states that don’t enjoy positive relations with Washington. Rescinding a deal with one hostile country could even more adversely impact the White House’s negotiations with another that is even more antagonistic towards the West.

“The lesson,” says Chinoy, “for any future negotiation with North Korea is you can’t count on the Americans to live up to anything, so screw it, get as many nukes as you can, and say: ‘We dare you to attack us because we can nuke Los Angeles,’ and that’s where we’re going.”