North Korea-Iran Nexus: Can their Nuclear Ambitions be Stopped?

On Tuesday, May 16th, 2017, the Center for a Secure Free Society hosted a Washington, D.C. roundtable discussion on a most timely subject: “The North Korea-Iran Nexus: Can their nuclear ambitions be stopped?” Four participants representing a range of perspectives tackled the thorny issue of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear proliferation efforts and made substantive recommendations for U.S. policymakers, at a time of heightened tension as the North Korean regime ratchets its nuclear ambitions with a series of menacing missile launches.

The panel consisted of columnist and television commentator Gordon G. Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World;  Dr. James Carafano, Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Collum Davis Institute at the Heritage Foundation and author of Surviving the EndIlan Berman, Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council and author of Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power and Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute. The panel was moderated by Adam Kredo, senior writer at the Washington Free Beacon.

Berman set the stage by giving an overview of the shared history and ominous relationship between Iran and North Korea, describing it as “the dog that isn’t barking.” Berman underlined how the most recent JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action includes the five permanent UN security council members, Germany and the European Union) nuclear treaty has provided Iran with an overabundance of new resources that incentivize the completion of the country’s nuclear objectives. Meanwhile, North Korea, a seminal partner in Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, has been heartened by the permanence of the treaty, interpreting it as acknowledgement of a nuclear status quo.

Chang outlined the extent to which China and Chinese entities have armed North Korea. Financial, technical and other assistance has largely kept the North Korean arsenal supplied with the latest available technology, and Beijing has also assisted Iran in meeting its nuclear objectives. Chang argued that since North Korea has abrogated the terms of all previous arms agreements, the U.S. should increase pressure on China by sanctioning Chinese companies known to supply the North Koreans. In effect, if these companies continue to do business with Pyongyang they should be prohibited from doing business with parties to the arms accord. Similarly, Chang suggested inspecting contraband shipments to Iran and increasing U.S. signaling on North Korea to China.

Dr. Carafano reviewed the foreign policy of the Obama administration in its quest for equilibrium in three critical regions: Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He argued that the new Trump administration should work for a “persistent presence” of the U.S. in these three regions to secure vital American interests. With regard to the North Korean situation, he stressed the need to place heavy sanctions on Chinese entities that supply and enable the North Koreans as well as the Iranians. Carafano emphasized that the recent North Korea crisis has forced the new U.S. administration to reformulate policy in real time.

Benjamin Friedman argued that the worst aspects of the current North Korean crisis can be halted, although he expressed more optimism for halting Iran’s nuclear plans, arguing that “containment has been historically successful” over military conflict. Friedman stressed the need to manage relations with both actors, placing emphasis on internal conflicts in the ruling elites in both countries.

Chang and Berman also pointed out that the problem with both Iran and North Korea is more ideological than it is technical. Moreover, the level of collusion between the two regimes remains noteworthy as Iranian technicians have been present for the last five North Korea missile launch tests and numerus sources have reported that North Korea is temporarily storing Iranian nuclear technology, hampering efforts to confirm Iranian compliance with the JCPOA.

While disagreeing fundamentally on a number of critical points, Friedman and Carafano made reference to a strategy of containment not unlike during the Cold War era, whereas Berman and Chang stressed the inevitable and continued conflicts that might arise unless both regimes are denuclearized and eventually replaced. The latter also stressed increasing support for dissenting and opposition forces within each country as an important component of US strategy towards both regimes.

The intellectually charged and highly informative discussion delved into policy recommendations for the U.S. foreign policy and national security communities, and was followed by a lively question and answer session with attendees.