x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

North Korea's snub shows way forward on Iran

North Korea's latest rocket test was a failure, but there was little relief in that news for anyone who worries about that country's export of weapons technology.

When North Korea's Unha-3 three-stage ballistic missile fell apart and plunged into the Yellow Sea just 90 seconds after launch on Friday, there was no dismay anywhere but in Pyongyang. But there was little sense of relief, either, especially in this region, where Iran, which has imported North Korean nuclear technology, is inching ever closer to its own weapons capability.

Pyongyang's decision to push ahead with the rocket launch holds two competing messages for those who support non-proliferation efforts. First, North Korea is not as technologically fearsome as it often claims. Second, international pressure can be sadly inadequate in forcing a bad actor to abandon its weapons ambitions.

North Korea remains a rogue state, a menace but also an exporter of weapons and military technology to Iran, among other places. In 2010 an expert panel told the UN Security Council that North Korea continues "to market and export its nuclear and ballistic technology" to states including the Islamic Republic.

To be sure, Iran's existing medium-range missiles are already a destabilising element in this region. But Pyongyang's support for Iran's ominous nuclear programme demonstrates that it is not only North Korea's neighbours who need to worry about it.

Some western analysts say the Unha-3 test will doom US President Barack Obama's policy of engagement with North Korea; some say that North Korea's next step will be another nuclear test.

Perhaps. The North Korean regime, like Iran's, can be maddeningly hard for outsiders to understand. In both cases, normalisation of relations with the outside world could threaten the leadership's grasp on power, a fact which looms over any negotiations. But the ties between North Korea and Iran also show that coping with both countries is a challenge the rest of the world must face with all the unity it can muster.

In this regard, North Korea offers lessons on how to approach negotiations with Iran. Aside from the self-defeating pursuit of nuclear capability, Iran and North Korea share little in common. Iran has a long history of regional engagement; North Korea has for decades been one of the world's most reclusive states. And Iran is far more economically tied to the world that North Korea will be anytime soon.

Western engagement may matter little to North Korea's new leader, Kim Jung-un, the "great successor". But as big-power talks with Iran, in Turkey, showed yesterday, recognition and engagement can catch Tehran's attention.