North Korea hadn’t been in the news much lately. The world was fixated on the economic woes in China, strife between Iran and Saudi Arabia and ongoing efforts to contain and defeat Isis. Then came the literally earthshaking news, and that card-carrying member of the Axis of Evil was back on our radar, having tested a hydrogen bomb believed to be about 1,000 times more powerful than an atomic bomb (opinions vary).
Wasn’t North Korea supposed be giving up its nuclear bomb program, you ask? Didn’t it sign a treaty with the United States to suspend construction of nuclear weapons reactors in 1994? And after it backed out of that agreement, didn’t it once again declare in 2007 that it was shutting down its main nuclear reactor as a result of multinational talks, ushering in new relations with the U.S.? That one lasted until 2009, when the North Koreans began testing missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
A couple of takeaways here: Crazy regimes that have the ability to develop nuclear weapons won’t stop until they do. And deals and understandings to thwart them are worth less than the paper they are printed on.
Analysts are beginning to assess what this means for our newly inked agreement with Iran. The Obama administration said for years that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but then proceeded to accept one anyway. The Iran deal released tons of frozen assets and opened the door for Russia to flood the Middle East with more weapons now that sanctions are lifted while Iran is largely allowed to self-monitor its dubious promise to keep uranium enrichment to levels used only for nuclear energy, not for weapons.
It didn’t take long for a test of the framework. Iran has been shooting off long-range missiles, including one that came dangerously close to a U.S. aircraft carrier. The White House was prepared to slap some sanctions on Tehran but, quickly changed course under the apparent pretense that damaging President Hassan Rouhani wasn’t in our best interest when worse hardliners are sniping at his heels.
The problem for the U.S. is our lack of credibility when it comes to standing up and enforcing our stated interests, epitomized by President Obama’s pathetic “red line” warning against Syrian chemical weapons, a transgression now going into its third unpunished year. The coalition that reached the Iran deal has no real interest in enforcing red lines or re-imposing sanctions if inspectors somehow manage to stumble across a violation of the nuclear deal, and Tehran has to be very closely studying how the U.S., the U.N. and NATO react to North Korea’s openly flaunting its nuclear weapons. Admittedly, options are limited.
It may fall to Russia’s Putin to make a difference. Vladimir Putin has visited North Korea and in November sent a military delegation to conduct high-ranking talks about mutual interest. In 2012 Putin forgave billions in North Korean debt in order to foster better ties. But the possible H bomb is a game changer.
Russian officials have expressed grave concern. "Such actions are fraught with further aggravation of the situation on the Korean peninsula, which is anyway marked by very high potential of military and political confrontation," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, according to the Moscow Times.
If Russia has a chance to play the good guy here, it can do so for its own interest, exerting global influence, upstaging the U.S. and perhaps diverting attention from its role supporting Bashar Assad in Syria and its bullying of Ukraine. Polls have reportedly shown that Russian citizens have a largely unfavorable view of North Korea, believing that its nuclear ambitions are a menace. Maybe Putin can come up with the leverage needed to talk some sense into Kim Jong-Un.
Then we’ll still have to worry about Iran. Analysts are concerned that ties between Tehran and Pyongyang, and the presence of Iranian scientists at past North Korean tests and their sharing of missile technology. Iran would not have to conduct its own tests if it could gain easy access to North Korea’s data. Doing so may not even be a violation of the vague terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with Iran, Thomas Moore, a former non-proliferation expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Business Insider.
If the world continues its tepid reaction to North Korea’s test, it will send a strong message to an Iran that is likely already biding its time to go nuclear, either in secret violation of the agreement or when its term is over.
Quite a frightening scenario to consider. It’s hard enough to put one nuclear genie back in the bottle. What are the chances we’ll be able to do it twice?
Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. In his philanthropy, he is a board member of the American Jewish Congress, co-founder of Magenu.org, and president of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. He is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters. Follow @E_Verschleiser