How does North Korea's nuclear program compare with that of Iran?
The difference between Iran and North Korea is that North Korea is out of the box—they've acquired the means to make weapons and exited the Non-Proliferation Treaty.** Most people think it's harder to get a country back in the box once they've left. Iran has lived up to the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in terms of allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect what they're doing. Iran declares that its program is for energy purposes, not for weapons. But they've also been moving closer and closer to a posture where they could break out quickly and produce the highly enriched uranium used to make weapons. There's a lot of concern about this. Actually there's a lot of anxiety about both of them, and there's a concern with regard to North Korea that South Korea and perhaps even Japan might get so worried that they [also will] feel they need nuclear weapons.
With North Korea, we're trying to get them to see that they would be better off cashing in their status as a nuclear weapons state. Still, it's debatable how hard we've been trying. I don't think we've given them a convincing offer to do this.
What would be a convincing offer?
We are still technically in a state of war with North Korea since there was no peace treaty after the Korean War. North Korea worries about the U.S. interfering in the regime change there. They cite Libya as an example of a country that gave up its nuclear program and this year was vulnerable to bombing by NATO. North Korea would need some kind of assurance that if they got rid of their nuclear weapons we would leave their regime change up to them and not interfere. It's hard to make a convincing guarantee of this because it's such a repulsive regime, but that's really what they want.
Well, also they want some sort of economic assistance because they're in such terrible shape. South Korea and China have tried to set up factories in certain areas, but they haven't worked out. I'm critical of the U.S. for not doing a better job on its end. The first [George H. W.] Bush administration was ambivalent toward North Korea, thinking we should pressure them until they collapse. Clinton thought they were close to a deal but then they were out of office. Neither the [George W.] Bush or the Obama administrations have done much in terms of negotiations with North Korea.
** In 1985 North Korea agreed to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT), which requires non-nuclear weapon states to give up the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons, but refused to sign an obligatory safeguards agreement with the IAEA. In 1994, the same year Kim Jong-il assumed power, North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid from the U.S., an agreement that collapsed in 2002. In August 2003 China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the U.S. launched another major diplomatic effort known as the Six-Party Talks. A few years later North Korea pledged to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return to the NPT. But the talks broke down in 2009 following North Korea's nuclear missile test that year. (The country conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.)