President Barack Obama may be racing to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, but his nonproliferation legacy could ultimately hinge on a country further to the east — one that already has nuclear weapons and is led by an unpredictable 30-something.
When it comes to curbing North Korea's nukes, even administration officials acknowledge that diplomacy is in a holding pattern. Detractors and some supporters say the administration has given up trying to stop North Korea's steadily expanding program; others say Obama's team has missed opportunities to resume formal negotiations with Pyongyang. And some critics argue the U.S. should further toughen sanctions on the hermit-like Asian country.
With the North Korea talks in limbo, the Obama administration has instead invested far more energy into trying to stop Iran's program. The U.S., Iran and other countries involved in the talks unveiled a preliminary agreement in April and are working on a final deal to be finished by June 30.
Those urging strong skepticism about any deal with Iran say that the U.S. is repeating mistakes it made in earlier dealings with North Korea. Some argue that the U.S. is signaling it and the international community will lift sanctions too quickly, and that doing so will undermine its economic leverage over Iran — leverage difficult to restore despite U.S. assurances.
The critics point to the Bush administration's decision in 2007 to unfreeze $25 million in North Korean funds to boost talks with that country as an example of how such attempts to build confidence can backfire by giving a rogue regime new room to maneuver. (The Bush team also agreed to take North Korea off the state sponsors of terrorism list, another measure that detractors argue was a symbolic boost to an intractable foe.)
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the U.S. and its partners also failed to force the North Koreans to accept robust inspections of key sites.
"Like the North Korea deal, this Iran deal will depend on a verification and inspection regime that will prove to be neither enforceable nor sufficiently robust to stop an Iranian atomic sneak-out and will make war more likely as our tools of peaceful economic coercion and enforcement disappear," Dubowitz said.
"North Korea is the problem from hell," Dubowitz said. "Our options have become very limited."
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