Opinion

North Korea and Iran: Two Different Approaches for Two Dangerous Nuclear Projects

Unlike North Korea, nuclear capability is not Iran's end goal – it is a way station for the pursuance of regional ambitions

A still image from a broadcast by North Korea's KRT shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un receiving a briefing in Pyongyang, August 15, 2017.
/AP

There are similarities between the ambitions of the nuclear programs run by Pyongyang and Tehran, and between the projects themselves. Both countries’ arsenals possess ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads over thousands of kilometers. Both are virtually independent in developing their weapons, despite sanctions that have been imposed on them over the years. Both countries annually invest a substantial part of their resources in these weapons programs, and both programs constitute a danger to most of the world.

Both North Korea and Iran have no compunctions about exporting their deadly know-how to other countries and terrorist organizations. Through them, ballistic missiles have proliferated in the Arab Middle East. The Syrian nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, was built by the North Koreans. It is also rumored that North Korea is helping Iran circumvent the restrictions of the nuclear agreement they signed, which limits progress of their nuclear project.

But that is where similarities between the two end. In determining a policy that will curb the two countries’ nuclear ambitions, one that could eventually lead to the dismantlement of their nuclear and ballistic capabilities, it is important to take account of the differences in the rationale that underlies each program.

For North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the possession of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads is an insurance policy – a very expensive one to be sure, but well worth the cost in his eyes. He is following the policy initiated by his father, Kim Jong Il, and through significant technological progress has managed to miniaturize the size of nuclear warheads and extend the range of his missiles. From his perspective, he has achieved immunity for himself and his regime from attacks by countries hostile to him. In the word of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, an attack on him could lead to a “catastrophic” confrontation. In other words, Kim has achieved his aim: deterrence. Maybe some years ago, before North Korea had attained its present capabilities, it would have been possible to put an end to his nuclear ambitions, but it now seems too late.

Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of Tehran, Jan. 15, 2011.
Hamid Foroutan/AP

On the positive side, there is no reason to assume that Kim would use his nuclear weapons capabilities to take offensive action, as he surely knows that the action would spell the end of him and his regime – it would be a suicidal move. There is therefore some logic in waiting for the day when the inevitable change will come to North Korea, while taking all measures possible to prevent Kim from exporting his nuclear and ballistic know-how to others.

With the Iranians it is an entirely different story. They are not there yet, but they are very close. For the ayatollahs in Tehran, the ability to deliver nuclear warheads over long distances is also an insurance policy, but unlike North Korea, it is not their end goal – it is a way station for the pursuance of regional ambitions. It is a lever to becoming the dominant power in the Middle East. Even now, with still a little ways to go before they “go nuclear,” they are exploiting the lifted sanctions and the money that has been made available to them pursuant to the agreement, to promote terrorism against those they consider their enemies. They use it to fund and train Hezbollah and build up their arsenal of ballistic missiles and to aid the Shi'ite insurrection in Yemen. Today Iran effectively rules Iraq and parts of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen while threatening Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel.

A few years ago it might have been possible to stop the Iranian nuclear project in its tracks. It may still be possible before it's too late.