Pyongyang and Tehran

Iran and North Korea have been in the headlines this past week, with their nuclear programs the focal point. They habitually are treated quite differently, though. Iran garners the lion's share of attention as a news leader. North Korea appears intermittently and fleetingly. Consequently, little effort is made to compare the two cases. I believe that it would instructive to undertake such a study. The comparisons can be expected to expose different risk assessments, strategies and diplomatic modes of address. That in turn draws our attention to the question of what exactly the United States and other external parties want. There is neither space nor time for a complete analysis. So allow me simply to prime the discussion by posing a key and very puzzling question: why is there manifestly greater worry about the Iranians and far more draconian measures taken already or planned than is evident with North Korea?

This is an anomaly. After all, North Korea has tested two atomic weapons. Iran does not even have a nuclear weapons program, according to international intelligence agencies. North Korea has made important strides in developing ballistic missiles, this past week's fizzle notwithstanding. They now can reach Alaska and before too long likely will extend their range to reach Seattle -- at least. Iran's delivery systems are primitive by comparison. It is not even clear that they could deliver a (non-existent) warhead to take out the American Embassy complex in Baghdad -- which happens to be bigger than downtown Seattle. Furthermore, Pyongyang has made its technology available to other parties. The outstanding was the barter deal with Pakistan in the 1990s whereby North Korea provided extensive assistance to the Pakistani missile program in exchange for centrifuge enrichment technology.

There is one other factor in the comparative equations: the personality of the leadership. Much ink has been spilt arguing that Iran is not a rational actor and therefore the logic of deterrence from any use, or threatened use of nuclear weapons could not be expected to work. Yet, Ayatollah Khamenei has issued fatwas that abjured the use of nuclear weapons twice on ethical grounds. Moreover, he would not be making those decisions in isolation. By contrast, the current North Korean leader is the third in a line of autocratic hereditary rulers all of whom have manifested emotional instability and touches of paranoia. He also wields absolute power. Nonetheless, it is the Iranians who get people into a lather.

Washington has shown itself as prepared to enter into direct negotiations with North Korea on a range of security and political issues. We have not shown a similar readiness to engage Iran. North Korea's military capabilities and intentions get scant attention in the American media, among politicians, and in Congress, in contrast to the all-consuming obsession with Iran.

Why? A candid assessment of the reasons would add valuable perspective on what we are all after in dealing with each country.

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