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"The Black Swan President" Politico Magazine

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Dismantling America’s Nuclear “Axis of Evil”

Dismantling America’s Nuclear “Axis of Evil”

A significant development regarding North Korea’s recent nuclear test was revealed in late February, with the Obama administration secretly agreeing to talks to try to formally end the Korean War. In a distinctive diplomatic gesture, the U.S allegedly dropped the longstanding precondition that Pyongyang first must take steps to demonstrate its willingness to dismantle its nuclear program

This motion represents a larger foreign policy shift concerning the United States’s involvement in the nuclear proliferation of two rogue states: Iran and North Korea. While geographically disparate and seemingly unrelated, these two countries share similar struggles and ambitions – yet, the seriousness and urgency in which the U.S. addresses them could not be more different.

Take for instance, the United States’ nuclear agreement with Iran. Adopted in October 2015 amid a national discourse of hyper-partisanship, fear-mongering, and skepticism, this historic diplomatic effort consolidated the support of nuclear physicists, military officials, non-proliferation experts, and more than 100 countries across the globe to significantly dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. As of January 2016, Tehran completed the necessary steps to ensure that its nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful, and subsequently had its oil and financial sanctions lifted.

While an apparent diplomatic victory for the United States and the international community, the focus naturally shifts to North Korea, the sole survivor of what President George W. Bush designated in his 2002 State of the Union Address, as the “axis of evil.” Originally composed of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, this informal axis was the centerpiece to the United States’s War on Terror. While the grouping of these three nations seems unrelated misguided, North Korea’s ever escalating eagerness for nuclear advancement can be traced back to Pyongyang’s interactions with and observations of its Middle Eastern counterparts.

As early as the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the birth of an Islamic Republic, Iran and North Korea cooperated in educational, scientific, and cultural spheres, including Iran’s early nuclear program. Since the 1980s, North Korea has become known as a reliable supplier of arms to other countries, with increased weapons sales between Pyongyang and Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. The two nations are bound by their long history of antagonism toward the United States. 

In 1991, Pyongyang watched in dismay as the United States destroyed the Iraqi military — a military that in weapons and numbers that is reminiscent of the North Korean People's Army. Considering the escalation of U.S. military presence in the Middle East following the Gulf War into the Iraq War, as well as the Bush administration’s all-or-nothing strategy of refusing any talks whatsoever with Pyongyang (particularly during the early months of the 2002 nuclear crisis), it is unsurprising that recent exchanges between American and North Korean officials failed to make any progress with Pyongyang conducting its fourth nuclear-bomb test a mere several days later. 

The White House should be wary that its refusal to recognize Pyongyang’s desire for legitimacy and an equal seat at the negotiation table can and will elicit harsh backlash from a nation whose very survival depends on explosive power of its nuclear arsenal. Unlike Iran, North Korea has little incentive to dismantle its only shield against retribution – a nation no stranger to crippling economic sanctions and U.S. - R.O.K. military exercises right on its border. While President Obama has pointed to the Iran deal to signal to North Korea that he is open to a similar track with the regime of Kim Jong Un, this longstanding condition of demanding action on the DPRK’s part as a mandatory precursor to even informal talk is unrealistic and reflects an archaic policy of isolating nations that Americans prefer did not exist. Thus, perhaps it would be more practical to first dismantle U.S. policymakers’ affinity for absolutisms when approaching nuclear talk within the Axis of Evil, before expecting our adversaries to unilaterally dismantle their only form of leverage. 

- Samuel Kim

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