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Why an Iran-style deal won't work for North Korea

Anti-North Korea activists at a protest in Seoul on February 22, 2016
Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images
Anti-North Korea activists at a protest in Seoul on February 22, 2016

The success of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal has reared optimism for world powers to resolve the North Korean crisis in a similar fashion. But differences between the rogue nations may make that tough.

That global authorities would want an end to the impasse in North Korea is understandable. The isolated country's belligerence has been a key source of unease: Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and then launched a long-range rocket earlier this month, both in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Not only do such incidents reveal the aggressive, military-first policy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, they trigger worries that Kim may finally act on his multiple warnings and launch a strike against the U.S. and other foes.

Multilateral negotiations aimed at denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, known as the Six-Party Talks, between the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea have been stalled since 2009 and little progress has made since then, with Pyongyang proclaiming itself a nuclear state in 2012 despite strict international sanctions.

Iran's nuclear program has been equally worrisome for the international community. Last year, the group known as the P5+1, consisting of the U.S, U.K., Russia, France, China and the European Union, secured a landmark victory when Tehran agreed to temporarily halt its nuclear program in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions.

So, if these nations can win in Iran, why not in North Korea?

The resumption of Six-Party Talks is highly unlikely because of the diametrically opposed preconditions attached by the stakeholders, explained Tan Ming Hui, associate research fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"The U.S. wants North Korea to return to the talks and commit to denuclearization before the removal of sanctions and a peace treaty could be on the table; Pyongyang wants the sanctions to be first removed and a peace treaty negotiated before it is willing to return to the talks."

Over the weekend, news emerged that Washington had changed tactics in its attempt for a peace treaty. In early January, the Obama administration asked for the weapons program to be part of discussions instead of demanding the pariah state first reduce its nuclear arsenal before talks begin. Pyongyang reportedly declined the offer and then tested its alleged hydrogen bomb a few days later.

Moreover, the circumstances differ for Iran and North Korea.

Iran lacked sufficient fissile stockpiles to create a weapon, but Pyongyang already has a secure arsenal, which it views it as an effective bargaining chip to obtain aid and funding, noted Tan. North Korea is also less reliant on foreign trade and access to the international financial system, while Iran depends on energy exports, she added.

Pyongyang also benefits from Chinese economic support, whereas Iran largely had to fend itself. Beijing is North Korea's only ally, largest trading partner and primary source of food, making it the only country with influence over the hermit kingdom.

Its special relationship with North Korea has made China especially supportive for Six-Party Talks. Following the rocket launch on February 7, China's foreign ministry urged dialogue between international parties to ensure regional stability. Washington, on the other hand, responded with fresh unilateral sanctions.

"Furious though the Chinese may be with North Korea, Beijing is likely to continue to resist tough sanctions and to press the United States to resume the so-called Six-Party Talks," explained Alastair Newton, head of Alavan Business Advisory and former political analyst at Nomura, in a note earlier this month.

However, recent news may suggest a change of heart. South Korean media reported on Monday that several Chinese banks have frozen accounts belonging to North Koreans, in what would be considered additional sanctions.

At any case, China's pleas for a diplomatic solution are likely to fall on deaf U.S. ears after Pyongyang rebuffed Washington's request last month, according to Newton.

"President Barack Obama has shown no inclination whatsoever to engage with North Korea since the latest test — which he took as a direct snub after he had reached out to Pyongyang. So, I don't think this is going to bring people to the table even though Beijing may try to encourage Washington in that direction."

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