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North Korea and Iran, a tale of two nuclear programs

After rolling back sanctions against Iran, the US is moving to impose tougher measures against North Korea. But pressuring Pyongyang to scale back its nuclear program will likely prove more difficult.

US President Barack Obama's policy toward Iran and North Korea began with a change in rhetoric. Branded as "rogue states" by past presidents, the two countries were now referred to as "outliers."

"President Obama gave both countries a structured choice," Robert Litwak, who served as the director of nonproliferation on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, told DW.

"Come into compliance with international norms and reap the benefits of increased integration in the international system, or persist in policies that contravene their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and face isolation," Litwak said.

Confronted with the same choice, Iran and North Korea took different paths.

'North Korea less integrated'

Österreich Wien Atomverhandlungen USA Iran IAEA Generaldirektor Yukiya Amano

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano

Last weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Tehran had fulfilled its obligations under the terms of the July nuclear deal. The United States and the European Union reciprocated by lifting a host of economic sanctions.

While Iran dismantled centrifuges and poured concrete into the Arak nuclear reactor,

North Korea claimed in early January to have detonated a hydrogen bomb,

its fourth nuclear test to date. Experts doubt the hydrogen bomb claim, saying Pyongyang most likely detonated another atomic weapon.

H-bomb or A-bomb,

the United States is moving to impose additional sanctions

over the incident. Last week, the House of Representatives backed stricter sanctions, and the Senate is expected to vote on a similar package by the end of the month. Try as it might, however, Washington has less leverage over North Korea due the country's extreme isolation.

"North Korea is much less integrated into the international system than Iran because it doesn't seek to sell a major commodity like oil on the international market," said Litwak, director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center.

And the largest importer of Iranian oil was the European Union, giving the West direct leverage over the Islamic Republic's economy.

Nordkorea Atomanlage Tongchang-ri

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launching station in Tongchang-ri

In the case of North Korea, China is the key economic player, and Beijing has proven reluctant to apply much pressure, fearing a state collapse that could send a wave of refugees across its border. Visiting South Korea on Wednesday, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to do more to reign in Pyongyang.

'Strategic patience'

As isolated as North Korea may be,

US sanctions have had an impact when they hit the right pressure points.

In 2005, the Bush administration threatened to blacklist a bank in Macau called Banco Delta Asia, suspecting that Pyongyang was laundering money through it.

According to the Wall Street Journal, authorities in Macau responded by closing North Korean accounts, freezing some $25 million in assets. China, Vietnam and Mongolia also began freezing North Korean assets as a precaution, concerned that the US would target their accounts if they didn't.

US-Präsident Obama mit Fernglas an Grenze zwischen Süd- und Nordkorea

US. President Obama looks along the border between North and South Korea (March 2012)

In response, North Korea boycotted talks with the US and tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. The financial pressure, however, became so great that Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in return for the seized money. North Korea didn't keep its end of the bargain.

According to Litwak, North Korea already had an estimated ten nuclear weapons by the time Obama entered the Oval Office. The White House focused on preventing Iran, which was expanding uranium enrichment, from also acquiring a nuke.

"The administration made Iran a priority and mobilized international opinion, with North Korea the administration has pursued policy called strategic patience," Litwak said.

Under this policy, the administration has refused to resume negotiations until North Korea agrees to a goal of denuclearization. So far, Pyongyang has kept Washington waiting.

"Strategic patience has not had a sufficient pressure... to bring a turnabout in North Korean policy, and in the meantime they've been building up their nuclear arsenal, probably through the uranium enrichment route," Litwak said.

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