After Iran, Is North Korea Next?

by John Feffer

During the George W. Bush years, pundits and journalists were constantly speculating whether North Korea would be next in line for regime change. After all, Bush had included North Korea in his “axis of evil” speech in 2002. One year later, the Pentagon invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a member of the trio of tyranny. Perhaps North Korea would be the next undemocratic domino to fall.

But the Bush administration didn’t invade North Korea. The neoconservatives in ascendance in Washington were largely focused on the Middle East. With its many artillery positions, North Korea could quickly retaliate against any attack by destroying much of the densely populated South Korean capital. And there was no government-in-exile that could plausibly take over in Pyongyang if U.S. troops managed to dislodge the Kim dynasty.

Jump ahead a decade, and the question again arises: will North Korea be next? But this time, pundits and journalists are speculating whether North Korea will be included in the Obama administration’s “axis of reconciliation.” The United States and Cuba have reversed decades of animosity by exchanging embassies. The United States and Iran, supported by much of the international community, have concluded a major deal freezing Tehran’s nuclear program and unfreezing economic relations with the country.

If international relations obeyed the rules of logic, the United States and North Korea would be sitting down right now to work out their differences. After all, when Washington finally realized that 50 years of sanctions hadn’t changed Cuba’s behavior, it decided to change strategies. Surely, the same applies to heavily sanctioned North Korea. And Iran realized that freezing its nuclear program could win it a potentially very lucrative economic arrangement with the United States and the international community. Surely North Korea has come to the same conclusion.

But international relations are not logical. Moreover, North Korea and Iran are operating in fundamentally different geopolitical contexts. In short, North Korea will not likely be the next member of the axis of reconciliation any more than it was the next member of the regime-change club.

First of all, unlike either Cuba or Iran, no major constituencies inside the United States are pushing for reconciliation with North Korea. The U.S. business community sees huge profits in the oil and gas sector in Iran and the agricultural and tourism sectors in Cuba. They have spent huge sums of money lobbying Congress and the administration to change U.S. sanctions policy. Previously, the business community was a big champion of détente with China.

But North Korea is not exactly an investment bonanza. The population is relatively small, plenty of outside firms have already lost money in their efforts to work inside the country, and neither the country’s infrastructure nor its laws are entirely predictable. If the corporate community wants to gamble with frontier economies in Asia, it has much better options in Myanmar.

In both the Iranian and Cuban cases, the diaspora communities shifted significantly in favor of engagement. For years, the Cuban-American population was fiercely anti-Communist. The Iranian-American population was similarly opposed to the regime in Tehran. But as a result of changes inside Iran and Cuba, a generational shift in the diaspora communities, and new communication technologies that linked the two populations, public opinion began to soften. This trend reflected a more general trajectory in favor of engagement among the American public at large.

With North Korea, on the other hand, the Korean-American community remains divided. Korean Americans are divided into roughly equal parts that believe U.S. policy toward North Korea is “too soft,” “too hard,” and “just about right.”

And Americans as a whole have very little good to say about the country. Indeed, according to Gallup’s World Affairs poll, North Korea has been at the bottom of the list of the American public’s most favored nations for the last two years. In 2003, only 8 percent of Americans viewed the country favorably, and that number has barely moved in the last dozen years.

In short, the push factor in the United States in favor of reconciliation with North Korea is extraordinarily weak.

The pull factor is no stronger. With both Iran and Cuba, political changes in the two countries ushered in reform-minded leaders – Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and Raul Castro in Havana. Although the regimes in both countries remained roughly the same, one presided over by ayatollahs and the other by the Communist Party, the new leaderships promised greater economic and political freedoms within the existing systems.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Eun took over at the end of 2011. Although many observers expected the young leader, perhaps because of his age, to inaugurate changes in the North Korean system, he has if anything presided over a tightening of the screws – executing his rivals, cracking down on would-be emigrants, and maintaining highly antagonistic rhetoric toward rivals South Korea and the United States.

President Barack Obama has a limited amount of political capital that he can spend in the international arena. He faces enormous pushback from a Republican-controlled Congress opposed to the détente with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. Absent pressure from the U.S. business community and an American public pressing for reconciliation with Pyongyang, the Obama administration is likely to ignore the issue of North Korea for the rest of its term.

Of course, North Korea itself could change the calculus. If Kim Jong-Eun borrowed a page from Hassan Rouhani’s playbook, he would revive the Six Party Talks and try to trade North Korea’s nuclear program for an invitation to join the global economy.

But there’s no indication that the third-generation Kim is interested in such a deal. Unlike Iran, North Korea is not an economic powerhouse that only needs an influx of capital to propel it to the top ranks. Iran currently occupies 29th place among world economies according to GDP, putting it in the company of Austria and Norway. By contrast, North Korea is much closer to the bottom of the list among the least developed nations of the world.

At the moment, the North Korean ruling elite worries that uncontrolled economic reform will unleash changes that might eventually trigger regime collapse. Pyongyang also seems to believe that its nuclear program represents the only credible deterrent to an attack by outside powers.

In order for relations to change between the United States and its adversaries Iran and Cuba, the stars had to align just so. A comparable realignment has not happened with North Korea. Unless something dramatic happens in Pyongyang or Washington, the status quo will remain exactly so for the foreseeable future.

Originally published in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.