Much has been made of the “special” relationship between Iran and North Korea, currently the only two surviving members of the infamous “Axis of Evil,” a term coined by former President George W. Bush to describe hostile enemies of the United States. The fact of the matter is that the two nations have merely been lumped together for the benefit of Western policymakers who seek to single out the policies of rogue nations indiscriminately. Far from ties being “special,” there is a surprising lack of depth and history in the North Korean-Iranian relationship.
In contemporary diplomacy, there were no relations at all between North Korea and Iran prior to the latter’s revolution in 1979. This means that North Korea, unlike South Korea, did not benefit from any part of Iran’s rapid process of industrialization and hegemony under the Shah, thereby leaving no precedent for relations. Curiously, Iran enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations with a number of communist countries during the reign of the Shah, most notably China and the USSR. China supported the Shah to the bitter end — during a trip to the United States, Premier Deng Xiaoping advocated that the United States deal “more aggressively with the trouble in Iran.” The USSR signed a multi-billion dollar trade deal with Iran in the 1970s and worked actively to establish natural gas pipelines and the steel industry in Iran. Tehran also established strong ties with a host of Eastern Bloc nations, including Romania and Bulgaria, for whom Iran was the largest trade partner and most important supplier of oil prior to the revolution.
These precedents suggest that the lack of diplomatic relations between Iran and North Korea was not a result of the ideologies or leanings of each nation, but rather because they got caught up in the contrary strategic directions of more powerful nations.
Following the Iranian revolution, diplomatic relations were established between the two nations, suggesting that despite their isolationist policies the two became friends. Furthermore, the new Iranian regime had expressed a desire to expand its relations with a number of Third World countries, and by 1986 Iran had established no less than 17 new diplomatic missions.
The revolution, American hostage crisis, and outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war resulted in Iran’s international isolation, inhibiting it from procuring arms and laying the shallow foundation for the potential cooperation between Iran and North Korea.
North Korea’s arms sales to Iran were rooted in economics rather than foreign policy. The arms that were provided to the new regime in Tehran provided Pyongyang with a number of economic benefits: the pre-revolutionary government’s hard currency reserves, including the American dollar and European currencies otherwise hard for North Korea to procure, a steady supply of crude oil as North Korea did not have access to a large Persian Gulf exporter (in 1980 Saudi Arabia and Iraq had no ties with North Korea), and access to petrochemicals and fertilizers necessary to manufacturing. Additionally, North Korean arms sales to Iran would become fundamental to the economy of Pyongyang, and to this day arms constitute one of its most important exports.
However, North Korea did pay a price for its cooperation with Iran. During the ensuing Iran-Iraq war its relations with Iraq disintegrated. Saddam Hussein received plenty of covert and overt Western military and financial aid, and did not need North Korean arms. It did not help when an Iraqi jet sunk North Korea’s only oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. The relationship became entirely tarnished by the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, which originated from Baghdad, Iraq and was destroyed before it reached Seoul. The United States, dismayed that Iraq did not win the war against Tehran, took the bombing as an opportunity to place North Korea on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List in 1988, although this could also be interpreted as a message to North Korea for supporting Iran over the course of the war.
As the North Korea-Iran relationship entered the 1990s, the two nations merely maintained the status quo. Iran supplied oil at favorable prices, while North Korea sold domestically produced ballistic missiles. Not unusually, more fundamental political cooperation followed the Iran-Iraq war between Iran and its more strategic allies — Syria closed key Iraqi pipelines, supplied Iran with weaponry, and cleared trade routes into Europe; Lebanon opposed both the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan at Arab League Summits over the course of the war; and Libya provided significant weaponry and loan guarantees. By comparison, North Korea did little to show support for Iran specifically.
In the 1990s and early 2000s relations between North Korea and Iran remained warm, but far from unique or special in any way, shape, or form. Each nation’s relations with the United States began to improve during this period. For North Korea, speculation arose as to whether it would be removed from the State Sponsors of Terror List, and a détente with South Korea began to form. Tehran’s help in crippling the Taliban in Afghanistan boosted the prospect of a future relationship between Iran and the United States. The August 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were both condemned by Tehran and Pyongyang only days later.
However, the January 2002 “axis of evil” speech by Bush tarnished America’s chances of rapprochement with Iran, and of moderating the North-South divide in Korea. In this same year, media outlets reported on a North Korean transfer of “missile technology” to Iran. One such article, appearing in 2002 in the New York Times, abhorred North Korea’s transfer of SCUD missiles to Iran and Iraq, while only mentioning in passing that North Korea had been selling such missiles to distant allies such as Yemen long before it had offered them to Iran. An image of purposeful cooperation between “axis of evil” members was crafted when no such special relationship existed.
North Korea and Iran’s warm relationship continued to be played up through the 2000s. In reality, to this day discord rather than convergence sets the tone. On the topics of the U.S. attacks against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, North Korea expressed significant opposition, while Iran was not inclined to condemn the intervention against a group with whom it had nearly gone to war only three years earlier. In the Levant, Iran continues to support the Shia Hezbollah group, while North Korea has only been a minor player in aiding this organization. And on the other hand, North Korea has a long relationship with the PLO, with whom Iran has often been at odds. In their first meeting in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini criticized Arafat for the PLO’s nationalist and pan-Arab agenda, a stark contrast to Iran’s pan-Persian vision of the Gulf.
More recently, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz asked then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the “U.S. intelligence community [had] observed any possible nuclear collaboration between Iran and North Korea.” As pointed out in a Forbes article by Claudia Rosett, the American intelligence community and the Obama administration regularly dodged questions concerning nuclear cooperation between those two nations.
While troublesome, this silence does not necessarily mean that the two states cooperate at some undefined level. In fact, North Korea could not likely provide Iran with any technological expertise that Iran could not obtain on the “nuclear black market”: from individuals like AQ Khan, or closer nations like Russia. Iran already has a more ambitious space and rocket program than North Korea, and a much larger scientific and technological community. While there is a need for Iran to engage in a sort of “nuclear networking,” this does not suggest any relationship beyond a diminishing marriage of convenience between the two nations.
Globally, beyond militarization, the two nations have little to offer each other. As Iran drifts toward moderation with the acceptance of the Iranian nuclear deal, deepens its economic ties with European nations, and nears the end of a UN arms embargo, North Korea will likely fade further from any role as ally for Tehran. That is provided an act of provocation against Tehran, rather than Pyongyang, does not give Iran a reason to re-accelerate its nuclear weapon or missile programs.
Luciano Arvin is an independent scholar based out of Peterborough, Canada. He primarily covers the foreign relations of Iran, Iraq and the GCC.