President Donald Trump’s impromptu visit to North Korea on June 30, which made him the first American commander-in-chief to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was truly historic even if the long-term impact of the trip is difficult to predict. Yet with Trump at the helm, the US has been challenged to implement policies that effectively conform North Korea’s conduct to meet Washington’s desires. Likewise, the same is true regarding Iran as especially heightened by Tehran’s announcement this month that it has exceeded the Iranian nuclear deal’s limits on enriching uranium. In fact, Trump’s policies, both in the Middle East and in Northeast Asia, have moved the DPRK and the Islamic Republic even closer together.
Last year, on August 8, 2018, North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho, held separate meetings with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran. Ri’s visit to the Iranian capital occurred shortly after Kim Jong Un’s meeting with Trump in Singapore and as Washington reintroduced sanctions against Iran. While Pyongyang’s chief diplomat was in Tehran, Rouhani warned him against negotiating with the “untrustworthy and unreliable” US, and Ri stated that Washington’s re-imposition of sanctions on Tehran was the “wrong” move.
In April this year, Iran’s state-run media announced that Zarif had plans to visit North Korea but did not specify the dates. That same month, a North Korean foreign ministry delegation began a diplomatic tour of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) member-states, visiting Iran, as well as Azerbaijan, Mongolia, and Syria. Such engagement between Iranian and North Korean officials and diplomats highlights the value that Tehran and Pyongyang place on their partnership.
Cooperation between Iran and the DPRK has emphasized not only the alignment of the two countries’ strategic interests, but also Tehran and Pyongyang’s interests in defending their sovereign decision-making capabilities about issues such as national defense without outside interference or aggression. The shared belief in this principle has aligned the governments of Iran and North Korea on a host of international issues over the years.
A Shared Struggle Against American Hegemony
Putting the mostly transactional Tehran-Pyongyang relationship in historical context, while the Iran-Iraq war was raging throughout the 1980s, the regime in Tehran struggled to survive as it faced existential threats from the revolution’s internal and external shocks. Iran’s view was that during those tumultuous years, the world’s most powerful actors turned against Iran and left Tehran with no choice but to forge alliances and partnerships with new countries. North Korea proved to be one of them, establishing a warm relationship with Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah.
After Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran in September 1980 with the aim of reversing Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, the new government in Tehran turned to North Korea as an intermediary arms supplier. Despite simultaneously selling arms to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, the DPRK regime proved to be an important partner for the Islamic Republic during that eight-year conflict. With the Iranians and Iraqis waving the “war of the cities”, North Korea provided Tehran with SCUD B ballistic missiles for blasting Baghdad and other cities. By the war’s end, approximately 300 North Korean military advisers were in Iran and the North Koreans had sold Tehran over USD 1 billion in “conventional arms, training, and military assistance.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was President at the time of his visit to Pyongyang during a Far-East tour in 1989, summed up this Iranian view of North Korea. “If big countries threaten progressive countries, then progressive countries should threaten them in turn . . . . You have proved in Korea that you have the power to confront America.”
In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, officials in Tehran were determined to work with anti-American countries worldwide to reconstruct Iran.
In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, officials in Tehran were determined to work with anti-American countries worldwide to reconstruct Iran. North Korea was particularly interested in securing lucrative contracts in the Islamic Republic. At that time, as the Salman Rushdie affair was stirring global controversy and cementing Iran’s reputation in the West as a pariah state led by Muslim fundamentalists, North Korea’s leadership expressed solidarity with the Islamic Republic by supporting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death fatwa.
The Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 hurt North Korea economically, having lost a superpower and close ally. Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, the DPRK was keen to find new partners throughout the world, including the Persian Gulf. During the 1990s and 2000s, Iran helped oil-thirsty North Korea meet energy requirements and military cooperation became an increasingly important pillar of the bilateral partnership. As Joseph Bermudez Jr. explained: “Iran had oil. Iran had cash. North Korea had weapons but no cash and no oil, so it was an ideal match.”
Iran’s ballistic missile and submarine capabilities are partly attributable to North Korean technologies. Since the 1990s, the DPRK has been helping Iran develop Shahab missiles. According to some sources, representatives from North Korea attended Iran’s test of the Shahab-4 missile in the mid-2000s. The Iranians have been able to acquire, copy, and use missile technology from Pyongyang. Iran’s version of the Nodong-1 missile is the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile. Iran’s version of the Yono-class midget submarine is the Ghadir-class submarine. Iran’s EMAD and North Korea’s Rodong missiles have significant similarities too. According to the US Navy, the DPRK has sold torpedo/missile boats to Iran, as well as 14 midget submarines.
Missile cooperation will likely continue to be a pillar of the Pyongyang-Tehran partnership. Iran’s missile capabilities concern Tehran’s adversaries, increasing the potential price for waging military operations against the Islamic Republic. As the Iranians continue to perceive the unpredictable Trump administration—as well as certain states in the region—as a major threat, deterrence and projection of military power throughout the Middle East will remain important to Tehran’s overall defense posture and regional foreign policy. The Iranian leadership views its links to North Korea as key to advancing the Islamic Republic’s efforts to restructure the Middle East’s geopolitical order.
Unquestionably, the closeness between Iran and North Korea is heavily based on a common belief that the US represents a constant existential threat.
Earlier this year, a UN panel of experts stated that weapons-dealing groups from North Korea are “extremely active in Iran.” Unquestionably, the closeness between Iran and North Korea is heavily based on a common belief that the US represents a constant existential threat. This dynamic has brought both the Islamic Republic and Pyongyang close to other countries worldwide such as Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela, which Washington has sought to isolate.
Of course, with North Korea already sanctioned by the US, Pyongyang is a natural partner for Iran. Yet the North Koreans’ willingness to invest in a military partnership with Tehran is understandable for reasons beyond the two regimes’ common interest in weakening the US geopolitically. North Korean arms sales to Iran provide the Hermit Kingdom with hard currency and revenue at a time when the North Korean currency is losing value, the country’s trade deficit is rising, and the possibility of a famine remains a major concern. With most North Korean trade occurring with China, a deeper partnership with Iran offers Pyongyang more options as the North Koreans seek to diversify their global trade beyond their immediate Communist neighbor, especially against the backdrop of problems in Sino-North Korea relations.
Nuclear cooperation is the most controversial aspect of the Iranian-North Korean relationship. The facts surrounding this are unclear. Experts debate how much Tehran and Pyongyang coordinate in this domain. Nonetheless, alleged full-fledged nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea has alarmed US officials for years. As Iran scaled back on its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), diplomats from Germany to Oman and Qatar to Japan have been working to urge Tehran to avoid a return to enriching uranium in ways not tolerated by the nuclear accord.
The extent to which Tehran and Pyongyang have deepened their partnership and pursued ballistic missile activity—and, in North Korea’s case, developed nuclear weapons—illustrates how Washington’s approaches to dealing with both the Islamic Republic and DPRK have failed to serve America’s interests.
Yet, looking ahead, if the Iranian leadership takes steps to further its nuclear program that stoke greater suspicion about Tehran’s intentions, Iran-North Korea cooperation will likely come under more scrutiny, especially by officials in the Trump administration. The extent to which Tehran and Pyongyang have deepened their partnership and pursued ballistic missile activity—and, in North Korea’s case, developed nuclear weapons—illustrates how Washington’s approaches to dealing with both the Islamic Republic and DPRK have failed to serve America’s interests.
Security Threat Perceptions
To the contrary, Trump’s policies, plus those of his predecessors, have created perceptions in both Tehran and Pyongyang that an effective deterrence of foreign aggression, which requires strong national defense systems, is increasingly necessary. Iraq and Libya’s former strongmen, who while in power lacked weapons of mass destruction (WMD), paid the ultimate costs for not having the military capabilities to deter the aggression against Baghdad and Tripoli from the US and other NATO members that toppled both regimes in 2003 and 2011, respectively.
Should the leadership in Tehran conclude that only by possessing a nuclear weapon could Iran guarantee its sovereignty and security in the face of an American threat, that would certainly present a danger. Yet regardless of whether Iran becomes a nuclear weapons-state in the future, the Tehran-Pyongyang military nexus will remain an important pillar of both the Iranian and North Korean regimes’ strategies for countering foreign pressure and advancing other fundamental national interests during times of isolation.