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#3587, 19 March 2012
North Korea and Iran: A Study in Contrasts
PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS
email: prchari@gmail.com

Controversy has surfaced before the Nuclear Security Summit begins in Seoul on 26-27 March. The issue is whether the Summit should concentrate attention on nuclear security, as urged by the NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states - United States, Russia, Britain and France. China has reserved its position. Or, widen the agenda to include nuclear safety concerns, and assaults on the integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by North Korea and Iran. A narrow agenda only focused on the terrorist threat to acquire nuclear materials seems wholly inadequate to address the seminal problems confronting the international nuclear regime.

North Korea and Iran provide a study in comparisons and contrasts. The similarities are: both had willingly joined the NPT, which prohibits its non-nuclear adherents from acquiring nuclear weapons. In lieu, they were assured access to nuclear technology for their civilian programmes. Both North Korea and Iran cheated on their pledge by secretly seeking a nuclear weapon capability. Both were discovered, and then entered a process of interminable dialogue, without halting their clandestine activities. Both were isolated and subjected to expanding economic sanctions - Iran has now been denied access to SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), a banking hub that is critical for financial transactions. Both are termed ‘rogue states’, or, more politely, ‘states of concern’.

What is being underplayed - another area of comparison - is the threats, including nuclear threats, held out against North Korea and Iran by the US; it underlines their security concerns and has influenced their nuclear quest. North Korea, allied with China, had clashed with the United States in the Korean War (1952-54). President Eisenhower had issued a nuclear threat against North Korea at that juncture that has embedded itself into its national psyche, and propels its nuclear quest. Similarly, Iran has often been threatened by the US to desist from proceeding further with its uranium enrichment programme and derive its nuclear option. The empirical evidence informs that the US attacks non-nuclear nations with impunity, but is circumspect in dealing with nuclear-armed countries, thereby increasing the attraction of nuclear weapons, and weakening the non-proliferation regime. This aspect of US security policy gets no mention in the Western print and electronic media.

How can the cases of North Korea and Iran be contrasted? The received wisdom informs that North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state, since it has exploded a nuclear device twice. The literature speaks of the Nuclear Club having nine states, which includes the NPT Five, the non-NPT 3 and, finally, North Korea. But its inclusion in the Nuclear Club is premature, since there are grave doubts about its nuclear capability, premised on its testing two nuclear devices. Iran, however, is nowhere near achieving a nuclear-weapons capability. It is currently seeking an ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. Thereafter, it has to master ‘shape technology’, design a nuclear device, and gain confidence in its efficacy through a field test. North Korea was able to develop its nuclear-weapons capability with the assistance of the former Soviet Union, then China and, later, Pakistan without much obstruction. Iran, however, was discovered very early in its enterprise, and can only secure limited help from Russia and China. Hence, it needs to proceed in the teeth of strong regional and international opposition.     

How do these parallel situations affect India? It is apparent that official India has practically ignored North Korea’s chicanery, but is greatly exercised with the Iranian case. This is a short-sighted policy. The likelihood of nuclear weaponization of both these countries has serious implications for regional security. It could set off a ‘proliferation chain’ in Northeast Asia resulting in South Korea, Taiwan and, perhaps, Japan, contemplating their nuclear option, especially with the Obama administration committed to retrenching its presence in this region. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities would place intolerable pressures on Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Emirates to pursue their nuclear option, leading to the Gulf region becoming the theatre of regional instability. A deterioration in the regional security milieu in India’s western neighborhood and, further, in Northeast Asia, is hardly in India’s long-term national interests.

The official position seems to be that, at this critical juncture, India should keep its head low, and not involve itself in any pro-active diplomacy. Maintaining the status quo being the need of the hour India should keep out of the Northeast Asian imbroglio, and ‘balance’ its relations with Iran. The latter requires paying lip service to American/West European concerns about Iran’s enrichment efforts, but ensuring oil supplies from Iran by skirting the economic sanctions imposed upon it. Such extreme caution may not serve India’s national interests, but only emphasize its lack of qualifications for great power status, which India dearly covets.

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