SEOUL: The recent drama between the United States and Iran has elements North Korea will find of great interest.

From Tehrans perspective, the tensions must look like a story of a small, poor but proud country pushing against an incursive superpower, using asymmetrical means, and that superpower responding with a targetted but overwhelming force with a surgical strike on a national hero.

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Last week, the US government responded to Iranian provocations by killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and Iran retaliated by declaring all US military personnel “terrorists” and launching attacks on US military installations in neighbouring Iraq.

The Middle East tensions come at a time when some analysts are nearly ready to give up on the prospect of Washington and Pyongyang reaching a lasting agreement regarding the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the lifting of US economic sanctions.

The two sides recent attempts to sit down for negotiations, including the second Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi, amounted to little more. Since then, North Korea has said it is no longer interested in holding meetings that do not yield results.

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READ: Iran's strikes on US bases in Iraq 'calibrated not to cause casualties': Expert

The current conflagration with Iran serves an example of how bad things could get.

TENSIONS OVER NORTH KOREA HEATS UP OVER 2019

North Korea raised the temperature in December, in advance of the “year-end deadline” Pyongyang had unilaterally imposed on the US to make some kind of fresh proposal to renew momentum for dialogue.

Pyongyang then carried out weapons tests and alluded to possibly bestowing an unwanted “Christmas gift” – presumably an aggressive provocation of some sort – on the US.

READ: Commentary: Right now, it must feel good to be Kim Jong Un

The North promised an ominous 'Christmas gift' earlier this month if Washington does not make concessions by the end of December. (File photo: AFP/Handout)

The tough talk raised the possibility that North Korea would do something that would effectively end the dialogue mood and bring the two sides back to square one.

Against this backdrop, North Korea may be quietly pleased that Washingtons attention is now fixed on the situation in the Middle East.

But there is no indication what North Koreas leadership is thinking. The hermit kingdoms state media has not mentioned the US-Iran discord.

DISTRUST, DETERRENCE AND THE LIMITS OF AGREEMENTS

Despite their outward silence, Pyongyangs power elite are no doubt monitoring developments in the Middle East and taking notes.

One lesson they may be taking is the potential impermanence of a nuclear deal with the US.

In 2015, Iran signed a deal with the US, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and Germany that mandated restrictions on Irans ability to enrich uranium and required inspections by external monitors. In response, the other countries agreed to lift sanctions on Iran.

Despite Iran having stuck to the terms of the deal, the US officially withdrew from the agreement in 2018, with President Donald Trump saying it had been a disadvantageous deal for the US.

READ: Commentary: Why Iran wont seek direct confrontation with the US

READ: Commentary: Will a US president facing impeachment manufacture a foreign policy crisis?

Since then, Washington and Tehran have slid deeper into antagonism, culminating in the recent killing of Soleimani, who was arguably the most important operative in the Middle East.

LIMITS OF COMPARISON BETWEEN IRAN AND NORTH KOREA

Now is a good time to point out that Iran and North Korea are different in important ways.

The latest flare-up is part of a decades-long chess match between Iran and the US seeking control of the strategically vital Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2018. (File photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

North Korea does not seek to project its influence across its region as Iran does through its proxies in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

The top officials in Pyongyang are aware, if perhaps displeased, that they have little leverage in shaping regional developments or influencing affairs in China, South Korea or Japan.

North Korea has also not tested the USs patience the way Iran appears to have during Trumps administration, with the US having concluded that Iran struck oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, attacked ships off the Strait of Hormuz and provoked an attack in Iraq in which an American contractor was killed, not to mention its part in rousing crowds to the US embassy in Baghdad.

READ: Commentary: The curious case of US presidents squandering power in the Middle East

Irans regional aggression therefore allows Trump to claim that Soleimani had to be taken out for pre-emptive purposes, that US citizens were in danger against this backdrop. On Friday (Jan 10), Trump also claimed that Soleimani was planning to blow up the US embassy in Baghdad.

This is notwithstanding that US members of Congress concluded this week that the Trump administration failed to conclusively demonstrate that Soleimani posed an "imminent threat" to the US.

And while it has voiced threats involving US military bases in South Korea and Japan, North Korea knows better than to court trouble through openly confronting the US or directly attacking its interests in East Asia.

The US embassy siege by pro-Iran protesters in Baghdad lasted just over a day, but analysts warn it could have lasting implications for Iraq's complex security sector and diplomatic ties. (Photo: AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

The question for North Korea now is what to do while the attention of the US is elsewhere. Pyongyang could easily go back to launching projectiles off its coast to remind the world it is still here, still brandishing nuclear weapons, and try to extort aid from South Korea or China in exchange for peace.

READ: Commentary: Kim Jong Un is using North Korea's nuclear capabilities for extortion

THE SECURITY GUARANTEES NUCLEAR WEAPONS OFFER

But the reality is it will not be giving up its nuclear weapons anytime soon.

Strategically, North Korea knows its nuclear weapons offer the only effective deterrence against an attack and guarantee of its security.

It had reacted badly when Trump officials spoke of “a Libya model” in 2018 and has learnt from the annexation of Crimea how Ukraines disarmament-for-compensation-and-security-Read More – Source