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The Iran Model: Could Nuke Deal with Tehran Help Create Way to Address North Korean Crisis?

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Nine months ago, the United States and other world powers reached a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Could a similar deal be reached with North Korea? We speak with Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund and author of “Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It is Too Late,” and Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Joe Cirincione into this discussion, who is head of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C., author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It is Too Late.

So, you have North Korea saying they tested a hydrogen bomb, that the significance of that is how much more powerful a hydrogen bomb is than plutonium or uranium bombs. The U.S. says they don’t think they tested a successful one. But talk about the significance of this test and if you think there is some kind of peaceful solution here. This morning, we got word from Reuters that South Korea is in talks with the United States to deploy U.S. strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula, according to a South Korean military official.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yeah, let me talk about the test first and then the reaction that you’re seeing to it. From the beginning, it was pretty clear that this was not a hydrogen bomb test, despite the claim of Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. The seismic signature was just too small. And we know this, because we have an international organization, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, that has ringed the world with seismic monitors, acoustical monitors, atmospheric sensors, that can detect any test anywhere in the world. And this registered at around six kilotons. That’s about half the size of the Hiroshima bomb and nothing close to what you would expect from a hydrogen bomb. The reason you’re worried about this is that a hydrogen bomb can be a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima-type devices. So even a handful of hydrogen bombs in North Korean hands would pose a huge threat, specifically to South Korea and Japan, and other countries if they developed longer-range delivery systems, which they don’t now have. But—so we’re pretty confident at what they failed, if there was even an attempt at a hydrogen bomb test.

But the other significance is that they’re still trying. This is their fourth test. They got the bomb under George W. Bush, so the Bush policy to stop North Korea failed. But they continued to keep the bomb under the Obama administration, so the Obama administration plan to stop North Korea from getting a bomb failed. This is a clear violation of an international norm that we’ve had, that nobody test nuclear weapons. No one else in the world has tested a bomb since 1998.

What do we do about this kind of thing? I think the answers that you’re getting from people like The Wall Street Journal—here’s their fear-mongering editorial in today’s paper—a new proliferation age—and The Washington Post is that the only answer is regime change, that this shows that the only way to deal with this problem is what they proposed with Iraq, that you have to go in and physically, militarily overthrow the regime. Nonsense.

There is a way out of this. And although they didn’t test a hydrogen bomb, the shock that North Korea produced in the international system from their claim may be enough to finally jolt the two powers that can actually do something about this into action: China, which has the most ability to put pressure on North Korea, and the United States, which has the set of incentives that North Korea actually wants. It may jolt China and the United States to finally cooperate in a realistic and sincere effort to once again get North Korea back to the negotiating table, drop the preconditions the U.S. has set on these talks, get North Korea to drop its preconditions, and put together the kind of combination of pressures and incentives we saw work so well with Iran. Remember, when we started talking with Iran, that was a pipe dream. People said it was impossible, we could never get them to stop. Well, Iran is dismantling its nuclear program today, as we speak. You can do the same with North Korea, if you have a determined and focused global effort. It’s not just the United States. It requires a collaboration.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that collaboration and all of the players here, the biggest responses, of course, coming from South Korea, coming from Japan, and then, of course, there’s China.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yeah, so what you see in some of these countries—and this is a typical right-wing reaction—the conservative elements in South Korea and Japan use this to scare their populations to do an agenda they already want. So South Korean politicians are saying it’s time for South Korea to get nuclear weapons. You hear similar echoes in Japan. And so—and that ripples around in the United States, where, as I say, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post are saying it’s time to get tough, it shows that we have to have more weapons, more military action, not less.

China is upset about this. China doesn’t mind having North Korea being a stick in the eye to South Korea and Japan and the United States, but they don’t want it upsetting its border regions. China has much bigger problems. Look what happened to the stock market today. They want an extended period of peace and stability in the region so they can grow economically. They may be willing to clamp down more on North Korea to try to rein them in, but they don’t want to do that to such an extent that it destabilizes the regime. They don’t want a nuclear-armed North Korea, but what they want less is a destabilized or collapsed nuclear-armed North Korea. So they’re trying to thread the needle there.

I think there’s a role for the United States to play here with some of our other close allies, with South Korea, with Japan, to get talks going again. The lesson we have learned from the past few years—and I think your other guest will agree with me—as we learned from the Clinton years, is when you talk to North Korea, you constrain the program. We stopped the bomb program for eight years with the Clinton plan, with the agreed framework. It’s when you don’t talk to them that they start building, they start testing, they start firing missiles. You can’t make the mistake that Michael Douglas made in Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close, thinking that you can walk away from this problem. Like Glenn Close, North Korea will not be ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, do you share this assessment?

CHRISTINE AHN: I do. And the one other thing that I think it’s important to put into geopolitical context is the U.S. Pacific pivot to Asia. And although China may consider North Korea to be a thorn in its side, they also would—they are also very concerned about the pivot to Asia, in which, you know, by 2020—which is in four years—the U.S. will have 60 percent of its air force and naval capacity in the Asia-Pacific, and in an effort to contain China. And so, North Korea plays a very convenient bogeyman to justify greater militarization in the region.

And, you know, the recent bilateral deal that recently took place between South Korea and Japan, I think, is alarming to both North Korea and to China, that these Cold War lines are being drawn again, and that, you know, the U.S. needs Japan and South Korea—you know, the unsinkable ship that they call Japan, and, you know, the beachhead that they call South Korea—in its effort to contain a rising China. And so, you know, the timing of North Korea’s test, I’m sure, has something to do with that, as they see the U.S. galvanizing its allies in its military buildup against its Cold War enemies.

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“A Travesty”: Is Japan’s Apology to Korean “Comfort Women” an Attempt to Silence Them?

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