SEOUL: The recent drama between the United States and Iran has elements North Korea will find of great interest.
From Tehran’s perspective, the tensions must look like a story of a small, poor but proud country pushing against an incursive superpower, using asymmetrical means, and that superpower responding with a targetted but overwhelming force with a surgical strike on a national hero.
Last week, the US government responded to Iranian provocations by killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and Iran retaliated by declaring all US military personnel “terrorists” and launching attacks on US military installations in neighbouring Iraq.
The Middle East tensions come at a time when some analysts are nearly ready to give up on the prospect of Washington and Pyongyang reaching a lasting agreement regarding the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the lifting of US economic sanctions.
The two sides’ recent attempts to sit down for negotiations, including the second Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi, amounted to little more. Since then, North Korea has said it is no longer interested in holding meetings that do not yield results.
The current conflagration with Iran serves an example of how bad things could get.
TENSIONS OVER NORTH KOREA HEATS UP OVER 2019
North Korea raised the temperature in December, in advance of the “year-end deadline” Pyongyang had unilaterally imposed on the US to make some kind of fresh proposal to renew momentum for dialogue.
Pyongyang then carried out weapons tests and alluded to possibly bestowing an unwanted “Christmas gift” - presumably an aggressive provocation of some sort - on the US.
The tough talk raised the possibility that North Korea would do something that would effectively end the dialogue mood and bring the two sides back to square one.
Against this backdrop, North Korea may be quietly pleased that Washington’s attention is now fixed on the situation in the Middle East.
But there is no indication what North Korea’s leadership is thinking. The hermit kingdom’s state media has not mentioned the US-Iran discord.
DISTRUST, DETERRENCE AND THE LIMITS OF AGREEMENTS
Despite their outward silence, Pyongyang’s power elite are no doubt monitoring developments in the Middle East and taking notes.
One lesson they may be taking is the potential impermanence of a nuclear deal with the US.
In 2015, Iran signed a deal with the US, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and Germany that mandated restrictions on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and required inspections by external monitors. In response, the other countries agreed to lift sanctions on Iran.
Despite Iran having stuck to the terms of the deal, the US officially withdrew from the agreement in 2018, with President Donald Trump saying it had been a disadvantageous deal for the US.
Since then, Washington and Tehran have slid deeper into antagonism, culminating in the recent killing of Soleimani, who was arguably the most important operative in the Middle East.
LIMITS OF COMPARISON BETWEEN IRAN AND NORTH KOREA
Now is a good time to point out that Iran and North Korea are different in important ways.
The latest flare-up is part of a decades-long chess match between Iran and the US seeking control of the strategically vital Middle East.
North Korea does not seek to project its influence across its region as Iran does through its proxies in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
The top officials in Pyongyang are aware, if perhaps displeased, that they have little leverage in shaping regional developments or influencing affairs in China, South Korea or Japan.
North Korea has also not tested the US’s patience the way Iran appears to have during Trump’s administration, with the US having concluded that Iran struck oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, attacked ships off the Strait of Hormuz and provoked an attack in Iraq in which an American contractor was killed, not to mention its part in rousing crowds to the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran’s regional aggression therefore allows Trump to claim that Soleimani had to be taken out for pre-emptive purposes, that US citizens were in danger against this backdrop. On Friday (Jan 10), Trump also claimed that Soleimani was planning to blow up the US embassy in Baghdad.
This is notwithstanding that US members of Congress concluded this week that the Trump administration failed to conclusively demonstrate that Soleimani posed an "imminent threat" to the US.
And while it has voiced threats involving US military bases in South Korea and Japan, North Korea knows better than to court trouble through openly confronting the US or directly attacking its interests in East Asia.
The question for North Korea now is what to do while the attention of the US is elsewhere. Pyongyang could easily go back to launching projectiles off its coast to remind the world it is still here, still brandishing nuclear weapons, and try to extort aid from South Korea or China in exchange for peace.
THE SECURITY GUARANTEES NUCLEAR WEAPONS OFFER
But the reality is it will not be giving up its nuclear weapons anytime soon.
Strategically, North Korea knows its nuclear weapons offer the only effective deterrence against an attack and guarantee of its security.
It had reacted badly when Trump officials spoke of “a Libya model” in 2018 and has learnt from the annexation of Crimea how Ukraine’s disarmament-for-compensation-and-security-assurances deal can be a risky endeavour with massive ramifications.
North Korea has also for years publicly claimed that it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from US aggression, that there are outside forces who wish to topple its system, and the people of the country must forego normal freedoms, unite and resist.
The targeting of Soleimani could strengthen that narrative. There are other examples North Korea feels illustrate this point.
The violent ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is said to have been heeded with almost mythic importance in North Korea as a story of how one strongman trusted the outside world, gave up his nukes and ended up forced from his throne as a result.
North Korea's leadership took from Gaddafi's downfall the lesson that by giving up his nuclear weapons program, he made himself vulnerable. Had he kept his nukes, the line of thinking goes, he could have stayed in power and his people would have been safe and independent.
THE DANGER OF DRONES
There is another unnerving wrinkle to the past week's events: With the killing of Soleimani, the US displayed a willingness to carry out targeted drone attacks of top officials.
Don’t test our tolerance for aggression because we will respond decisively: The signal may have been primarily intended for Iran but the message no doubt was also received by North Korea.
At this point it is most likely that North Korea will bide its time, and that instead of carrying a provocation to get Washington's attention, it will look to continue developing weapons, improving its technology with the goal of one day being recognised as a nuclear power.
Pyongyang has shown itself willing to play the long game, to endure long-term suffering in a way that impatient westerners have difficulty understanding. And the US clearly sees North Korea as a less pressing threat than Iran, with its manoeuvring for regional dominance.
The lesson from the past week is that despite the cordiality of the past year or so, whatever trust North Korea and the US had built is fragile, and the two sides have drifted further apart.
It will now be even more difficult for them to strike a deal when, or if, they convene for negotiations again.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.