Last week the White House announced that the Biden administration had completed its North Korea policy review. The press statement said that U.S. “will explore diplomacy with the DPRK,” referring to the North by its official name. It goes without saying that many factors may affect the outcomes of the new U.S. policy.
Looking at the headline of this article, some might argue that in accordance with the text of the Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the document “should not be considered as setting precedents for any other state.”
Some might also point out that the North’s nuclear capability and infrastructure are not comparable to those of Iran. After announcing its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests ― whereas Tehran has never made the political decision to produce nuclear weapons, to the best of our knowledge. Still others might insist that the Korean Peninsula has its own unique history and experience of diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation.
All these arguments are cogent. Nevertheless, I believe that the JCPOA and the outcomes of the ongoing talks in Vienna to restore it which imply Washington rejoining the deal and Iran resuming full compliance may be directly relevant to the prospects for resuming and strengthening dialogue on the Korean Peninsula. I also believe the lessons of the JCPOA talks may be applied to any future dialogue in the region. Let me explain why.
First, a restoration and an effective implementation of the JCPOA should demonstrate to Pyongyang and others that despite deep domestic political divisions, the United States is able to deliver sanctions relief and removal. There have clearly been problems with U.S. sanctions policy in recent years: Washington has found it easy to impose them, but reversing those decisions has proven very problematic politically and practically.
Second, many senior members of the Biden administration were actively involved in negotiating and/or implementing the JCPOA during its initial years. Some of them also have relevant experience with the Korean situation. Such officials hold senior positions in the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense and other agencies. If the efforts in Vienna to restore the JCPOA are successful, these officials quite likely will have the ambition to resume more active diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula.
Third, a restoration of the JCPOA would free up the U.S. administration’s political and administrative resources for more energetic efforts on the Korean Peninsula. As we all know, in the past, Washington found it difficult to work effectively on both fronts, and depending on the situation, had to prioritize one or the other.
Fourth, the negotiations and the ensuing implementation of the JCPOA have been watched very closely in Pyongyang. Amid the deep lack of trust ― strengthened by Washington’s proclivity in recent years to withdraw from various arms control agreements ― North Korean officials want to figure out whether a multilateral format for any future arrangements would help to make them more sustainable.
Despite all the difficulties the JCPOA has encountered since President Donald Trump took the U.S. out of the deal, its viability should demonstrate to Pyongyang that a multilateral format can be the core of the solution to the region’s security problems.
Fifth, the lessons learned from the JCPOA talks and the negotiations suggest that despite the concerns and doubts among experts and analysts, the key participants in the process ― including the U.S., Russia, and China ― can work together to achieve results and compartmentalize dialogue in this area from their numerous differences on strategic and regional issues.
Sixth, looking at the lessons from the JCPOA, a whole number of key negotiating principles that helped to achieve the Iranian nuclear deal can and should be applied to the settlement of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
These principles include mutual respect and the need to take into account the security interests of all parties to the process, a phased approach and the principle of reciprocity, the lack of which stood in the way of further progress during the summitry diplomacy of 2018 and 2019. The “phased approach” principle can be implemented on the basis of the plan of action on a comprehensive settlement of problems of the Korean Peninsula drafted by Russia and China.
Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be a long-term goal. In the short- and medium term, the aim should be an interim agreement. The most promising and sustainable approach would be multilateral, with North Korea and the U.S. playing the central role, and other countries (primarily the Republic of Korea, China and Russia) making active contributions. It should be a combination of bilateral and multilateral dialogue that was used in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue.
In this context, the outcome of the Vienna talks to restore the JCPOA would have direct relevance on the prospects for a resumption of dialogue on the Korean Peninsula and on the ability of that dialogue to produce results. All states ― including those that are not party to the Iranian nuclear deal ― should do all they can to contribute to its full restoration.
Anton Khlopkov is director of the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) and the chair of the 2022 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference (2022 MNC). This piece is published in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) (www.apln.network).
Image: APLN/iStock, Aleksandar Mijatovic.