A Tale of Two Threats

It’s not easy for a European observer of US politics to understand why the US Congress seems so much more concerned by Iran’s nuclear activities than by those of North Korea (the DPRK). Congressional pressure on the White House to put a stop to Iranian activities seems never-ending and Congressional majorities for anti-Iranian resolutions are staggering. In comparison, when did Congress last pass a resolution requiring the administration to take action against the DPRK?

On the face of it, this makes little sense. To a European, North Korea looks to be a greater and more actual threat to US interests than Iran.

North Korea is sitting atop enough plutonium for perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons. Two underground nuclear tests have shown that the North Koreans are able to put together nuclear devices, though experts surmise that these are still somewhat rudimentary.

North Korea has also acquired the capacity to enrich uranium. Western experts have seen a relatively small enrichment plant at the main DPRK nuclear research centre. There has been speculation that there exists a larger plant deep within the mountains in the North of the country.

Iran has no plutonium. Iran possesses enough low-enriched uranium for half a dozen nuclear weapons but has so far shown no sign of wanting to enrich this material to the 90% level required for weapons. The Iranians are not suspected of having conducted nuclear tests; they may not be capable of assembling a workable nuclear explosive device.

North Korea expelled the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the end of 2002, and has only allowed them back in for a brief period since. Over the last ten years no state has received as many IAEA inspections as Iran, whose two enrichment plants were declared to the IAEA before they started to operate.

North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in early 2003, having failed to correct the nuclear safeguards non-compliance declared by the IAEA in 1993. Iran corrected its pre-2004 safeguards failures within two years of their discovery; it expressed regret over these transgressions; and ever since it has affirmed the fullest of commitments to the NPT, to which it became a party fifteen years before the DPRK.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are viewed as a threat by two of the US’s most valuable allies: Japan and South Korea (the ROK). These two allies are crucial to the US’s defence of its strategic interests in the Western Pacific. In the event of hostilities between the US and China (heaven forefend!) Japan would offer the US vital staging facilities, akin to those the US would have enjoyed in the UK if the US needed to go to war on the European mainland.

US strategic interests in South West Asia are on the wane. The US is now self-sufficient in natural gas and imports less than 12% of the crude oil it consumes from the Gulf; it could quite easily switch to African and American suppliers if Saudi and Iraqi supplies were threatened. Over the last decade the risk of Iraqi transfers of WMDs to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda acquisition of safe havens in the Middle East has been eliminated (albeit at a price!).

Since the end of the Cold War, over twenty years ago, no single power has been capable of challenging US influence in South West Asia, whereas China is increasingly seen in the US as an emerging challenger to the US in East Asia.

When it comes to making belligerent noises, Iran’s leaders can’t hold a candle to those of North Korea. And the average alienist would surely find it easier to treat the former than the latter.

In 2011 US merchandise exports to the Far East were worth $286 billion and imports $718 billion. Comparable figures for South West Asia, including Turkey and Israel, were $71 billion and $108 billion. Far Eastern investors supply the US with a far larger percentage of external credit than do Middle Eastern investors. Far Eastern corporations are major employers and tax-payers in the United States.

All of these very basic facts must be familiar to Congressional staffers, if not to members of Congress. So how can one explain the disproportionate attention that Congress pays to Iran’s nuclear activities?

I have a theory. But I think it would be more appropriate for me to leave readers to come up with their own answers. I suspect that most will be honest enough to admit to themselves that they have a pretty shrewd idea as well.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. IMO, Israel is the answer. Israel wants to be the dominant force in the ME and a nuclear Iran is a great obstacle to that.

  2. North Korea is less vulnerable to U.S. threats than is Iran, andmoreover aready has nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it is less surrounded by military bases, and it is adjacent to China, which woould be srongly opposed to a U.S. attack.

    There are reasons why N. korea is less an object of U.S. bellicosity.

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