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Mahesh Sharma asked: If the US could have diplomatic breakthroughs with both Iran and Cuba, why can’t it have the same with North Korea?

Kapil Patil replies: North Korea, along with Cuba and Iran, is one of the three countries where the U.S. has been looking for a diplomatic breakthrough. As President Barack Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has successfully restored diplomatic relations with Cuba after its more than 50 years of isolation. The restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba was mainly driven by the policy realism that isolationist policies have become ineffective with the end of the Cold War and that there is a need to diplomatically engage the Island country. The reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana is thus an important step taken by the Obama Administration.

President Obama has also opened the door for a peaceful solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. The U.S. along with the major international powers has successfully placed verifiable restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme and in return has agreed to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. This diplomatic breakthrough is equally significant for President Hassan Rouhani in terms of his victory over the hardliners in getting the parliamentary approval for the deal. The policy change brought about by the election of President Rouhani and his willingness to engage with the international community unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an important factor in achieving the diplomatic success.

In case of North Korea, however, the U.S. has so far not been able to clinch a diplomatic breakthrough primarily due to two reasons: First, North Korea’s unwillingness to enter into any negotiation over its nuclear programme. It has been a major obstacle to initiating a meaningful engagement with Pyongyang. The international community remains unwilling to accept North Korea as de facto nuclear weapon state. The U.S. along with its Western allies has tried to de-nuclearise North Korea through sanctions, threat of military force and economic incentives for the last two decades, but with no significant effect. Second, the resolution of the North Korean problem requires a collective effort from the U.S. and China. The U.S. cannot alone bring North Korea to the negotiating table and requires China to persuade North Korea to suspend nuclear testing and return to the six-party talks.

Both the U.S. and China together need to engage and convince North Korea to give up its nuclear programme in return for a collective security guarantee, and also offer necessary economic assistance to enable it to become a normal member of the international community.

Posted on October 15, 2015