There are smart dictators and dumb dictators. Kim Jong-un: Not so smart. Ayataollah Ali Khameini: Very smart.

All you have to do is compare how North Korea and Iran have handled their respective nuclear programs. Both have sought to achieve nuclear weapons status so as to preserve themselves in power and to make themselves strong and feared by both their neighbors and by the United States. North Korea has already succeeded in acquiring nukes (as shown by its latest nuclear test). Iran has not succeeded yet but is on its way.

Both countries have also sought to leverage their nuclear programs into subsidies for their regime. On that score Iran has been infinitely more successful.

Back in 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program as part of the Agreed Framework with the U.S. In return Pyongyang received $1.3 billion in food and energy assistance from the U.S. A few years later, in 1998, a liberal government in Seoul launched a “sunshine policy” of trying to woo North Korea. Over the course of the next nine years the North received $8 billion in economic assistance from the North.

Not bad — but not that great compared to what Iran has done.

Tehran, too, has agreed to freeze its nuclear program — and not even to freeze it indefinitely as North Korea did in 1994 but to freeze it for a period of only 10-15 years. Iran has not stopped all of its other provocative and illegal activities: It continues to support terrorism, to hold Americans hostages, to develop ballistic-missiles in violation of UN sanctions, to trash the embassies of countries it doesn’t like, etc. But it is getting a payoff that makes the Agreed Framework look like chump change. Before long — possibly in a matter of weeks — Iran will gain access to more than $100 billion in frozen oil funds, and that’s only the start of the bonanza. With all sanctions being lifted, Iran will have full access to the international economy without having to give up its nuclear ambitions. All of that lucre is likely not only to further entrench the tyranny in Tehran but to enhance its efforts to project the Iranian imperium across the region.

By contrast, North Korea, by brazenly admitting in 2002 that it was secretly enriching uranium, has made itself an international pariah. The North’s nuclear tests only ensure that the U.S. and other outside actors will maintain or even strengthen sanctions on the regime. Even China, North Korea’s No. 1 patron, is unhappy about the nuclear program. (China wants to be the sole East Asian country with nukes.)

Sure, the nuclear program has helped to keep Kim Jong-un in power, which is the program’s main purpose.  The latest nuclear test, North Korea’s fourth, serves that goal by announcing to both North Korea’s own people and to its neighbors: Don’t mess with us. We have the ultimate weapon
(even if the North doesn’t actually have a hydrogen bomb, as it claims).

But the costly nuclear program also has contributed to the impoverishment of Kim’s people (admittedly not something he cares about) and, more importantly from his perspective, it has limited his own power. After all, the “supreme” rulers of rich countries such as China are far more powerful than the “supreme” rulers of poor countries like North Korea. North Korea’s militarism has contributed to its isolation and, hence, its impoverishment, even as Iran grows richer and stronger.

The difference between Iran and North Korea was brought into stark contrast this week. Hours after the North Korean nuclear test, the UN Security Council, including China, issued a condemnation and promised fresh sanctions. By contrast, neither the UN nor the U.S. has done anything about Iran’s illegal ballistic-missile tests, its sponsorship of terrorism, or its failure to come fully clean with IAEA inspectors about its past nuclear activities.

Granted, there are some intrinsic differences between Iran and North Korea, since the former has a lot of oil that other countries want and the latter doesn’t have much of anything. (Actually, North Korea has vast mineral resources, but it’s too much of a basket-case to extract and export them.)

But there is also a notable difference in degrees of shrewdness between the Stalinists in Pyongyang and the theocrats in Tehran. You have to hand it to Iran’s mullahs: They know how play the international community like a Stradivarius. Kim, by contrast, is still in pee-wee piano class.

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