Gloomy precursor to Iran deal

In this Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, photo, pedestrians walk on the newly painted Taedong Bridge in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea is in high gear as it prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In the past few days, North Korea has renewed its threat to produce nuclear weapons and to demonstrate its long-range missile capability to targets that could include United States.

So much for the previous attempt by an American president to duck a challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by offering incentives.

We can only hope that President Obama succeeds with Iran where President Clinton failed with North Korea, but the precedent is not encouraging.

The background for the latest flare-up of the oft-repeated North Korean nuclear threat is that the Hermit Kingdom is once again facing famine. Based on past performance, it may be using the threat of its nuclear weapons and missile programs to obtain better terms for the delivery of food or to block efforts to use food aid to extract military concessions.

In response, China has proposed reopening the six-nation talks that have previously led to North Korean promises to shelve its nuclear program — promises that have not been fulfilled.

It has been two decades since President Clinton agreed to provide North Korea with safe nuclear power reactors in exchange for international control of its supply of weapons-grade plutonium. Mr. Clinton was following the lead of former President Jimmy Carter, who went to North Korea to negotiate the deal.

But less than 10 years after it was struck, North Korea admitted to secretly converting uranium into nuclear weapons material in violation of its pledge to keep the Korean Peninsula a nuclear free zone.

That led China and President George W. Bush to agree on the six-nation talks designed to find a way for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. (The other members are South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea.)

Since then, North Korea has repeatedly conducted a policy of appearing to agree to terms in order to obtain benefits, then reneging.

It has also continued to work on its nuclear weapons program. The latest public estimate, from China, is that it has about 20 nuclear weapons and is actively making more. It is also trying to master the technology of making a nuclear weapon small enough to be fired over the Pacific on one of two long-range missiles it has under development.

However, North Korea is highly dependent on China, which has made it clear that it strongly opposes further development of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and its threats. This has, so far, limited North Korea’s efforts to use its nuclear status for anything more than the extortion of economic benefits.

The newest flare up of extortionate threats casts a shadow over President Obama’s effort to sell the alleged benefits of his agreement with Iran to restrict its nuclear ambitions.

Secretary of State John Kerry last week sought to deflect concerns about the latest threats, under the presumption that North Korea does not yet have a capability to endanger other nations, despite plenty of evidence that its has enough nuclear weapons to wreak havoc on the Korea Peninsula. He said, “Our position is clear: We will not accept ... North Korea ... as a nuclear weapons state, just as we said that about Iran.”

Sorry, but North Korea already is a nuclear weapons state. And Iran, a much more dangerous antagonist, is headed in that direction unless it is stopped by something more effective than the agreement that Mr. Kerry negotiated.