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Published : 2013-11-24 19:58
Updated : 2013-11-24 19:58

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claps at the first conference of the military’s security personnel to be held in 20 years in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)

A landmark deal between Iran and world powers to rein in its nuclear program is raising an expectation that North Korea may again creep up Washington’s foreign policy agenda and the stage could be set for restarting the long-stalled denuclearization talks.

But differences between the two countries in the level of atomic weapons development and economic conditions as well as Pyongyang’s history of cheating are likely to limit the cause for any optimism.

Iran and the so-called P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, with the help of the European Union -- reached a first-stage agreement Sunday.

Though the deal marked a primary move to close Tehran’s nuclear program, its implications could be far-reaching for Pyongyang, which also seeks relief from international sanctions which were enforced against its arms tests and are increasingly choking its already moribund economy.

Optimists have expected that a deal with Iran would provide the Obama administration with both a leeway and confidence to more actively deal with North Korea.

“Though any new accord with the North has yet to be in store, the Iran deal could help revive momentum for dialogue given ongoing brisk diplomacy between the six-party nations and China’s strong push for talks,” a government source said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The deal between Iran and the five powers is expected to add further pressure on the North, leaving Pyongyang alone in challenging the U.S. with threats of nuclear programs.

China has in recent months been striving to find middle ground between its mulish ally North Korea and South Korea and the U.S. for a fresh round of six-party denuclearization talks after five years.

But the U.S. and South Korea remain unwavering in their demand that the North should prove its resolve for denuclearization through action.

Some experts said the Obama administration may continue to ignore the North given the differences between the North and Iran.

The North has already tested its atomic devices three times and claimed to be a nuclear-weapons state, while Iran has been in the stage of development.

Experts also note differences in economic structure between resource-rich, trade-dependent Iran and reclusive North Korea, and resulting varying impacts of sanctions on them.

The U.S. unwillingness to negotiate with Pyongyang was highlighted by seemingly fruitless efforts by Beijing to resume the six-party talks.

Beijing’s seven-point proposal, reportedly presented by Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, during his trip to Washington last month, apparently embraces a return to the six parties’ watershed Sept. 19, 2005, joint statement.

It calls for a resumption of negotiations and implementation of the 2005 agreement; denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; settlement of the issues of North Korea’s interest (eased sanctions on top); normalization of relations between relevant countries and the U.S. displaying its willingness to sign a non-aggression pact with the North; efforts to replace the armistice with a peace treaty; adherence to the action-for-action principle and activation of five working groups (stated in the 2005 deal); and holding of the six-nation talks on a regular basis, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported Friday.

But a top Seoul official said the proposal is “insufficient to explain the current situation.”

Along with the pre-steps, any new agreement with the communist state must contain stronger commitments than those enshrined in the now-defunct Feb. 29, 2012, deal, the South and the U.S. said.

Under the so-called Leap Day deal, Pyongyang was to put a moratorium on its nuclear program, cease atomic and missile tests and let in international inspectors in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid from Washington.

“The single most important thing that we are looking for from North Korea is a sign of its sincerity, that it understands that it must fulfill its obligations to denuclearize, obligations it has made repeatedly,” Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters in Seoul on Friday.

”We have no interest in going back to six-party talks absent concrete indications that North Korea is ready to give up its nuclear weapons.”

Officials and scholars have for long rehashed comparisons between North Korea and Iran, highlighted recently by Israel stung by signs of reconciliation between its regional archrival and its prime ally, the U.S.

Both Pyongyang and Tehran insist on their right to peaceful nuclear energy development.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the newest agreement was “bad” and based on “Iranian deception and (international) self-delusion.”

Comparing it with the 2005 deal with North Korea, he said it would bring Iran “closer to having a bomb,”

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also cited the North Korean case to downplay Iran’s peace offensive, which he said was ultimately aimed at getting weapons while exploiting eased sanctions from the West.

“Like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at the time of its choosing,” he told the U.N. General Assembly.

Mindful of its ally’s concerns, Washington said the latest deal will prevent Iran from taking advantage of negotiations to move forward its nuclear program.

“In the past, the concern has been expressed that Iran will use negotiations to buy time to advance their program,” the White House said in a statement.

“These first step measures will help prevent Iran from using the cover of negotiations to continue advancing its nuclear program as we seek to negotiate a long-term, comprehensive solution that addresses all of the international community‘s concerns.”

To some in Seoul, the latest deal itself is seen as a Middle Eastern version of the 2005 joint statement with North Korea. Officials and scholars here had raised the possibility that Washington and Tehran could strike something similar to the 2005 six-party deal or the 1994 North Korea-U.S. Agreed Framework.

The “initial, six-month step” calls on Iran to halt enrichment above 5 percent and dismantle related technical connections; neutralize its stockpile of near-20 percent uranium; and stop progressing its capabilities to enrich uranium and produce weapons-grade plutonium including using the Arak heavy water reactor, according to the White House. The Islamic Republic will also have to ensure greater transparency and intrusive monitoring of its program.

In return, the P5+1 will provide Tehran with “limited, temporary, targeted and reversible” relief that amounts to about $6 billion-$7 billion in revenue, while maintaining the bulk of the existing key oil, banking and financial sanctions, the presidential office noted.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry “welcomed” the breakthrough, expressing hopes that Iran would continue to improve its relations with the international community and that North Korea would follow suit.

“We urge North Korea to humbly accept the international community’s united demand for its denuclearization, and make a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons by complying with its international obligations and promises including those stated in the Sept. 19, 2005, joint statement and related Security Council resolutions,” it said in a statement.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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