A Communist nation and a Conservative Islamist Republic- the friendship between North Korea and Iran couldn’t be more strange. How did it develop and what makes them stick together?
Looking for a Friend
Diplomatic relations between North Korea and Iran were established in 1973. The 1970s was a crucial decade for North Korean foreign policy, as having achieved a remarkable level of economic development which made it stand ahead South Korea, Pyongyang began to subdue Seoul by expanding its diplomatic outreach. A major victory soon followed as it got accepted as a member in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1975 at the expense of South Korea which had also applied for membership. However, it was soon revealed that the NAM itself was highly divided on the question of Korean Reunification as reflected in its 1976 Summit convened in Colombo. Moreover, in the 1979 NAM summit in Havana, Cuba criticised both the United States and China, adopting a more pro-Soviet stance which North Korea did not wish to support, prompting it to look elsewhere.
Though claiming itself to be a self acclaimed guardian of Communism, North Korea has been known to compromise on its goal of upholding Communist ideals in foreign policy, with the most interesting case being with Iran when Pyongyang expanded cooperation with Tehran post the 1979 Islamic Revolution which rocked not just the West Asian region but the world at large.
The relationship, though ideologically contradictory, was economically highly fulfilling. North Korea became one of sanction bound Iran’s largest arms supplier during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) as numerous Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks as well as Chinese ammunition found their way to Tehran via Pyongyang. North Korea thus became a bridge of trade between the Communist bloc and Iran. The arms trade plummeted owing to quality concerns in the second half of the 1980s but cooperation on military exchange continued.
Several state visits soon followed Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 1985 visit to Pyongyang post which North Korea sent technical advisors to Tehran. November 1990 saw a meeting between North Korean Defense Minister Oh Jin Uh and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) head Mohsen Rezai which followed the authorisation of the sale of 500 km Scud-C missiles to Iran. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Tehran in August 2018 followed by his Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif’s promise to visit Pyongyang. On his Presidential victory, newly elected Ebrahim Raisi received felicitations from North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong un who stated:
“Your election as President is a manifestation of Iranian people’s deep trust in and high expectation for you..I take this opportunity to express my conviction that the friendly and cooperative relations between our two countries would further expand and develop, and wish you success in your responsible work for firmly defending the national sovereignty and building a powerful Iran.”
North Korea has also shown active support for Iranian proxy militias such as Hezbollah.
Of Nuclear Dreams and Enemies
The strongest thread that binds Pyongyang and Tehran is composed of two strands: the alleged cooperation on weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons and anti-Americanism.
In 2006, Iran publicly accepted to have received Scud Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMS) from North Korea but claimed that it did not require Pyongyang’s aid anymore which made many analysts wonder if Tehran has qualitatively surpassed Pyongyang in nuclear technology.
The two have been sympathetic to each other’s nuclear development programme which they claim to be a measure of self defense in a hostile neighborhood, demanding destruction of the nuclear arsenal by all nuclear powers including the United States. The sanctioned pressed nations have strengthened their relationship further as the two citadels of anti-Americanism in East and West Asia.
While anti-Americanism has been a constant feature of North Korean foreign policy since the Korean War (1950-1953), pockmarked with cases of cooperation which have remained few and far between, American support for the Shah’s regime which many viewed as highly oppressive spoilt Tehran’s relationship with Washington once Ayatollah Khomeini led Conservative forces held the reins of governance in 1979. Both countries adopt a similar hardline stance on the Palestinian issue, blaming the United States for its active support of Israel.
In his 2002 State of the Union Speech, then US President George Bush defined North Korea and Iran as a part of an “Axis of Evil” and a threat to international peace and stability, earning strong rebuke from Pyongyang and Tehran.
Anti-Americanism in Iran has been further aggravated by the killing of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani in a US led offensive for which Iran demanded the Interpol to arrest the then US President Donald Trump.
Both of them act along a policy of what North Korea defines as “frustrating the imperial powers” where they have sought allies such as China who pose a major challenge to the hegemony of the United States. While Pyongyang is the only country China has a mutual defense treaty with, Iran recently signed a whopping $400 billion dollars worth 25 years deal with Beijing which has been defined as a “strategic accord” by Tehran.
A Budding Alliance?
While North Korea and Iran have had common concerns and interests, many roadblocks emerge on their way to becoming ‘All-Weather’ allies.
While many believe ideological barriers on the path of bilateral cooperation to have loosened post the end of the Cold War, the biggest roadblock in a North Korea-Iran nexus is cultural and linguistic which limit people to people contacts, rendering it to be a solely political and strategic alliance.
Second, as sanctioned bound economic troubles mount, the two might find it difficult to carry forward an economic relationship that solely rests on exchange of military supplies and technology.
Third, their worldview is dominated largely by regional concerns. For North Korea, the close nexus and military cooperation between South Korea and the United States is a bone of contention while for Iran, it is Washington’s allies Israel and the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia, where Pyongyang does not really have a role to play and the same applies for Tehran in Northeast Asia.
Fourth, Support for North Korea in Iran has been dicey, see-sawing between Liberals and Conservatives. While the Conservative hardliners are known to extend an arm of friendship towards Pyongyang, the moderate elements call for both countries to denuclearise and abide by the rules of international law.
Fifth and most importantly, the two disagree on many fronts. The Conservatives too have not always been favourable of North Korea specifically in cases where it agreed to cooperate with the United States on denuclearisation. Despite a few tussles such as freezing bank assets, Iran has not broken off its relationship with South Korea and has avoided tilting towards Pyongyang at the cost of Seoul on the question of Korean Reunification which though for Pyongyang is the central foreign policy goal, does not concern Tehran.
Pyongyang too has not been appreciative of Iran supported attacks on Sunni groups such as Boko Haram.
How important are they?
While the two do not seem to be building any long term alliance, their relationship is important considering the possession of nuclear stockpile and the resilience the two regimes have come to show in the face of crushing sanctions.
The importance of this relationship has been enhanced by the Ukraine invasion, which many claim to have unleashed a new world order. Russia’s advancements and the United States and NATO’s inability to constrain it have emboldened the two anti-American forces who might try to test and further push the limits of the Western world’s tolerance of their nuclear programme as reflected in their recent actions. While North Korea launched a spree of Hypersonic missiles at the beginning of this year and stated that it might resume its nuclear programme, Iran has also hardlined its stance on denuclearisation as reflected in the recent Vienna talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA). Ebrahim Raisi’s conservative regime is bound to further tilt towards North Korea in its opposition to the United States.
Considering the danger that such an alliance of military cooperation involving Weapons of Mass Destruction holds, the United States and its allies must ensure that the two are brought to the high table and a strong commitment is shown by all nuclear powers including the United States to denuclearise in the long term, for possession of nuclear weapons anywhere raise the bar of tolerance for lethal weapons which can have unimaginably disastrous consequences and if one country holds it, demands are bound to rise from others which might not always be curtailed, as the cases of Iran and North Korea show. Only negotiations and a strong commitment on part of all powers would ensure a peaceful world.