The North Korea Precedent

Today the representatives of the "five plus one" group will once again hold a meeting - which will apparently be described, once again, as "decisive" - on Iran's nuclear program. The five are the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the one is Germany, which is involved in talks with Iran on behalf of the European Union. But the chances of reaching a deal allowing the representatives to submit an agreed-upon proposal to the Security Council remain slim. The United States wants a resolute decision that will include a threat of imposing sanctions on Iran if it does not waive its right to enrich uranium. China and Russia strenuously object to that. Britain and France tend to favor the U.S. stance, but are also trying to reconcile the two positions.

America's resolute stance in this crisis (alongside that of Israel) was dealt a serious blow this week. Surprisingly, it was a self-inflicted blow. In what appears to be a reversal of the trend that has characterized the Bush administration since it came to power in January 2001, it has agreed to change its policy on North Korea. In complete contrast to the administration's previous firm position, it is now stating that it is prepared to discuss a deal offered by Pyongyang: a halt to its nuclear program in exchange for a peace agreement that includes security arrangements and a nonaggression pact. The apparent change will also have an impact on Washington's attitude toward Tehran.

North Korea reached an agreement with Japan, South Korea and the U.S. more than a decade ago. Pyongyang was a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT), signed inspection agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowed IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities, and committed not to produce fissionable material for the development of nuclear weapons. In exchange, North Korea won a benefits package that included a supply of fuel, a commitment to construct nuclear reactors for the production of electricity, and financial aid.

But three and a half years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency discovered that North Korea was violating the agreement and making a laughingstock of its partners: It was covertly producing plutonium and enough fissionable material to apparently enable it to make up to five nuclear bombs. The U.S., South Korea and Japan were angry and stopped providing North Korea with fuel and financial aid. North Korea underwent a major crisis due to a lack of food and electricity.

Kim Jong Il's tyrannical regime responded by withdrawing from the NPT and the IAEA. To obtain foreign currency, it sells nuclear missiles and information to Middle Eastern states, including Iran; it threatens to attack its neighbors; and it displays its power through the accelerated development of long-range missiles. Western satellite photos have revealed a new intercontinental missile that has an estimated 4,000-kilometer range and is capable of reaching the U.S. The photos also show renewed activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

The Bush administration could have demanded that the Security Council impose sanctions on North Korea, as it is demanding in the case of Iran. However, the U.S. has refrained from doing so, for two reasons. One is the vigorous opposition of China and Russia, North Korea's neighbors. The other is the opposition of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, which are concerned that the threat from Kim Jong Il will increase the more his regime is besieged and isolated.

Instead of sanctions and threats of a military offensive, Washington chose to use the diplomatic approach, at the request of its rivals and allies. The diplomacy is taking place in a six-party forum: Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and the U.S. But the talks, which began about three years ago, have been fruitless. North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear program as long as the U.S. does not recognize the country, sign a peace treaty and security pact and commit not to attack it.

Lately, however, the American media have reported a dramatic change in the administration's position. U.S. President George W. Bush has agreed, for the first time, to hold talks on a peace agreement with North Korea, which Bush had previously described as part of the "axis of evil."

If the U.S. does agree to negotiate with North Korea over a comprehensive peace in exchange for the country's renunciation of its nuclear program, then America can expect international pressure - including from its friends in the EU - to adopt a similar approach to Iran. The U.S. and Britain also dealt with Libya according to similar principles: In exchange for renouncing weapons of mass destruction and paying billions of dollars in compensation (for ordering the bombing of Pan Am flight 103), Muammar Gadhafi received both a political benefits package (a renewal of diplomatic ties with Washington and London) and an economic one (investments from oil companies).

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his aides, who draw encouragement from the precedent of North Korean defiance of the West, have repeatedly suggested beginning negotiations with Washington. If the talks with North Korea accelerate and the chances of an agreement increase, and as Iran approaches the technological threshold past which it will be able to produce nuclear weapons, the EU will intensify pressure on Bush to show more flexibility toward Tehran. In other words, the achievements of the six-party forum will constitute a precedent for the "five plus one" club.