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View more articles by Balazs Szalontai
Balazs Szalontai is a historian and professor at Korea University, Department of North Korean Studies.
Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly after 9/11, North Korea’s partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran has attracted increasing attention in the United States, Israel and South Korea, both among scholars and policymakers. In the sphere of academic research, Bruce Bechtol, Baek Seung Joo, Joseph S. Bermudez, Mark Fitzpatrick, Siegfried S. Hecker, Kenneth Katzman, Alon Levkowitz, Christina Y. Lin, Joshua Pollack, Barry Rubin and Rinn-Sup Shinn have made impressive efforts to describe and evaluate the security threats emanating from the Iranian-DPRK alliance. In the field of politics, President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech (January 29, 2002) instantly brought the Iranian-North Korean relationship into the international limelight, even though it provided little specific information about the nature of cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang.
Notably, the aforesaid academic and non-academic references to the Iranian-DPRK partnership have been focused nearly exclusively on matters of military collaboration, such as North Korea’s technological assistance to the Iranian missile program, the risks of nuclear cooperation, Pyongyang’s conventional arms shipments to the Iranian-armed forces and the two states’ joint assistance to Syria and Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist organization in Lebanon. In contrast, the non-military aspects of Iranian-North Korean relations, including diplomatic and economic issues, have remained more or less overlooked. This selective focus on military cooperation seems to have played a major role in that both academic experts and policymakers were prone to portray Pyongyang’s relations with Tehran as close and harmonious, without any reference to possible disagreements. According to this model of interpretation, the two states’ shared anti-Americanism and ideological militancy created a sufficient basis for stable, long-term cooperation. Only a few non-conformist scholars, like Bruce Cumings and Ervand Abrahamian, expressed doubts about this thesis, but their principal argument was that neither the DPRK nor Iran posed such a grave threat to the U.S. as the Bush administration claimed. Their book, Inventing the Axis of Evil (2004), did not examine North Korean-Iranian cooperation in detail.
…the non-military aspects of Iranian-North Korean relations, including diplomatic and economic issues, have remained more or less overlooked.
The image of a stable, harmonious and ideology-driven Iranian-DPRK partnership may generate a feeling of déjà vu among scholars familiar with North Korea’s complicated relations with the USSR, China and other communist states. After all, in the first decades of the Cold War, many Western observers assumed that North Korea’s belligerent acts, such as the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, were carefully coordinated with the strategic plans of other communist powers. Following the declassification of a wide range of Russian, Eastern European and Chinese archival documents, it has become clear that behind the façade of “internationalist brotherhood,” the DPRK and its communist allies were often at loggerheads with each other, not least because the North Korean leaders were neither reliable nor pliable partners.
In light of these discoveries, it appears worth investigating whether the Iranian-North Korean partnership has been affected by such conflicts of interest that frequently occurred in Pyongyang’s interactions with the various Communist powers. Judging from the declassified reports of Hungarian diplomats, divergent national interests and geopolitical priorities could, and often did, override the principle of ideological solidarity in Iranian-DPRK relations, too.
For instance, Pyongyang adopted a considerably ambivalent stance during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). On the one hand, the North Koreans quickly seized the opportunity to gain a foothold in Iran by providing the beleaguered Khomeini regime with massive military assistance – an act that induced Iraq to break diplomatic relations with the DPRK. On the other hand, Pyongyang was more interested in keeping several irons in the fire than in fully adjusting to Tehran’s diplomatic priorities. In early 1982, at which time Iranian-DPRK cooperation was on the ascendancy, a departmental head of the North Korean foreign ministry visited Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all of which were well-known for their pro-Iraqi position. Seeking to reassure the visited countries, the delegate claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that Iran had acquired arms of North Korean origin without the knowledge of the DPRK government.
North Korean propaganda enthusiastically approved the anti-American aspects of the Iranian revolution but it largely refrained from covering the Iran-Iraq War.
Anxious to patch up their relations with Baghdad, the North Koreans also invited an Iraqi delegation to Pyongyang, but the distrustful Iraqi government sent only an unofficial representative. The Iraqi-DPRK talks ended in fiasco, but the mere fact that they took place at all revealed that Kim Il Sung was reluctant to support Khomeini’s ideological crusade against Saddam Hussein to the hilt. Notably, North Korean propaganda enthusiastically approved the anti-American aspects of the Iranian revolution but it largely refrained from covering the Iran-Iraq War. The Iranian revolutionary leaders, on their part, decided to maintain diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea, no matter whether the DPRK liked it or not. In 1988, the Iranian diplomats in Pyongyang openly expressed their agreement with Hungary’s decision to recognize the ROK and the Islamic Republic – unlike Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia – refused to heed North Korea’s call for boycotting the Seoul Olympiad.
Alas, the declassified Soviet bloc documents do not provide an insight into post-1990 Iranian-DPRK relations and thus the researchers interested in the latter period are compelled to rely on alternative, non-archival sources. Of the publicly accessible sources, the statements of the North Korean and Iranian news agencies have remained largely unexplored to date. In a certain sense, this omission looks fairly justifiable, since the aforesaid news agencies, heavily censored as they are, have not published any verifiable data on matters of military cooperation – that is, the very subject that principally attracted the attention of the scholars interested in Iranian-DPRK relations. Still, if one compares the KCNA’s statements on Iran with the articles the Iranian media carried about North Korea, the differences between the two perspectives appear significant enough to be regarded as indicators of political divergence.
UNDER THE SURFACE
At first sight, the articles that the KCNA published on Iran in general and on Iranian-DPRK relations in particular, do create the impression of an unusually strong partnership. For instance, in 2011 the KCNA made as many as 273 references to the Islamic Republic, whereas the combined number of its references to Syria and Egypt barely exceeded 200. Furthermore, the scope of the information the KCNA provided about Iranian foreign and domestic policies in that year can be compared only to those articles that the North Korean press had once carried about Pyongyang’s closest communist allies. Among others, the agency lauded the Iranian government’s efforts to develop its navy and air force, enhance its cyber warfare capabilities, produce enriched uranium, launch a satellite, stamp out U.S. espionage activities, build an underground natural gas reservoir, construct a gas pipeline to Pakistan, increase the export of aquatic products, combat drug trafficking and – last but not least – improve the lot of women. The KCNA also frequently quoted the defiant statements with which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders lashed out at the United States and Israel and mentioned that “the Iranian government has paid special attention to the development of friendly relations with the DPRK” (April 21, 2011). Finally, the agency cited no less than 14 favorable references that Iran News, an English-language Iranian daily newspaper, made to North Korea in 2011.
A closer examination reveals elements of veiled dissonance in the rhetoric of Iranian-DPRK solidarity.
Nevertheless, a closer examination reveals elements of veiled dissonance in the rhetoric of Iranian-DPRK solidarity. First of all, the extremely high number of KCNA references to Iran in 2011 seems to have been an atypical and temporary phenomenon. From 1997 to 2010 and from the spring of 2012 to the present, the annual average of KCNA articles about Iran, relatively high as it was, did not surpass the agency’s references to Egypt and Syria as dramatically as in 2011 and the first months of 2012. Nor did the KCNA provide detailed information on Iranian domestic and external policies on a permanent basis. By 2013, the agency reverted to its usual mode of operation: Its references to Iran were mostly confined to such routine subjects as protocol news, short summaries of bilateral meetings, cited Iranian media comments on North Korea and attacks on America’s Middle Eastern strategy.
Second, it deserves attention that the abrupt increase of KCNA references to Iran started in February 2011 – that is, right after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom the DPRK had maintained close political relations ever since he assumed office in 1981. The loss of this old ally must have increased Pyongyang’s fears of isolation and its reliance on Tehran, all the more so because the Syrian regime also faced growing domestic instability. In contrast, the post-May 2012 decrease of KCNA references to Iran more or less coincided with the partial normalization of Egyptian-DPRK relations. Similarly to Kim Il Sung’s 1982 attempts to reach out to Iraq, Pyongyang’s balancing act between Tehran and Cairo indicated that the North Koreans found it more advantageous to maintain contacts with several major Middle Eastern powers than to wholly adjust to Iran’s diplomatic preferences. Significantly, the Iranian leaders positively welcomed the collapse of the Mubarak regime and presented the Arab Spring (save the Syrian uprising) in a mostly favorable light. Their North Korean allies, however, seem to have been deeply unnerved by these turbulent events. The KCNA made no comment whatsoever on the fall of Mubarak and later it summarily attributed the Arab Spring to American interference: “The U.S. orchestrated the Tunisian case in which the government was toppled through the spread of animation files about social conflict in December of 2010 through (the) internet and great disturbances in North Africa and (the) Mideast in its wake” (May 24, 2014).
Third, the frequent references Iran News made to North Korea in 2011 and afterwards seem to have been more closely related to Pyongyang’s efforts to present the DPRK as a state widely respected abroad (a subject B.R. Myers carefully examined in The Cleanest Race) than to the actual views of the Iranian side. On March 11, 2014, the editors of Iran News, either intentionally or unintentionally, exposed the manipulations of North Korean propaganda by publishing two strikingly different articles on the election of Kim Jong Un as a deputy to the Supreme People’s Assembly.
The expressly pro-North Korean articles carried by said newspaper actually [may have] constituted a peculiar type of paid advertisement.
One article – distinguishable from every other news item by its blue frame, unique style and the use of bold characters for certain names – proudly announced that “all the voters of the constituency took part in voting and 100 percent of them voted for Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), first chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) … This is an expression of all the service personnel and people’s absolute support and profound trust in supreme leader Kim Jong Un as they single-mindedly remain loyal to him, holding him in high esteem as the monolithic center of unity and leadership.”
The other article, which appeared on the very same page, was written in a markedly less reverent tone: “North Korea’s state media confirmed yesterday what was never in doubt – a 100 percent, no-abstention poll victory for leader Kim Jong-Un in the country’s stage-managed parliamentary election. … Sunday’s ballot was an election in name only. Each of the nearly 700 constituencies had only one state-sanctioned candidate, ensuring a foregone conclusion in every case.”
In the light of Iran’s decades-long experience in holding at least partially competitive parliamentary and presidential elections, it is reasonable to assume that the second article constituted a more accurate reflection of the actual views of Iran News than the first one. Notably, the annual number of KCNA references to Iran News remained virtually identical during the 2011-2013 period, which also suggests that the expressly pro-North Korean articles carried by said newspaper actually constituted a peculiar type of paid advertisement.
This is not to say that the DPRK-related articles published in the Iranian media were confined to such paid advertisements. On the contrary, the Iranian news agencies and daily newspapers created their own images about North Korea’s foreign and domestic policies in fairly sophisticated ways. In most cases, the Iranian media, at least outwardly, adhered to the principle of partnership and refrained from any direct criticism of Pyongyang’s acts. If a few critical comments did appear, they were published in such categories as “Opinion Column” (Tehran Times) and “What Others Think” (Iran Review), lest they be mistaken for the standpoint of state officials. Despite these limitations, Iranian publications have provided more factual information on North Korea than vice versa. In certain respects, Iran’s major news agencies, like the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Mehr News Agency (MNA) and Fars News Agency (FNA), have more in common with professional Western news agencies (whose reports they regularly cite as sources) than with the KCNA. They cover a far broader range of international events than the KCNA does and rarely publish lengthy rhetorical exercises devoid of any factual information.
Since the Iranian political system is far more polycentric than the North Korean regime and the Iranian media represents different segments of the socio-political elites, the comments that the various Iranian publications made on the DPRK were sometimes perceptibly different from each other. Ironically, the arch-conservative Kayhan International, whose hawkish worldview and obsessive concern about Western cultural pollution is relatively similar to Pyongyang’s attitude, has been so strongly focused on Islamic and Middle Eastern affairs that it paid little attention to East Asia in general and to North Korea in particular.
In contrast, the similarly conservative, state-funded Press TV has monitored the recent Korean security crises (like the Cheonan sinking, the Yeonpyeong shelling and the 2013 nuclear test) quite closely, sometimes on a daily basis. In most cases, however, it quoted the KCNA’s articles in parallel with the statements made by Western and South Korean politicians and analysts, without showing any detectable preference for either side. While Press TV did emphasize Iranian-North Korean solidarity and cooperation, it also paid considerable attention to the development of Iranian-South Korean economic relations. For instance, on February 24, 2011 Press TV mentioned that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi praised the DPRK’s “resistance to U.S. pressures,” but barely two weeks before, it also quoted an amicable conversation between President Lee Myung-bak – North Korea’s arch-enemy – and the newly accredited Iranian ambassador in Seoul. From Pyongyang’s perspective, it was hardly good news that the ambassador expressed “the Islamic Republic’s willingness to strengthen all-out ties with South Korea.” Notably, both the hawkish Ahmadinejad and his more moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani offered to mediate between the two Koreas.
North Korea’s belligerent policies were especially at odds with the ideas of those moderate Iranian politicians and political analysts
Predictably, North Korea’s belligerent policies were especially at odds with the ideas of those moderate Iranian politicians and political analysts who sought to resolve their country’s nuclear dispute with the Western powers by means of mutually satisfactory negotiations. On October 16, 2006, in the wake of Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, international affairs analyst Ali Khorram told Mehr News that “The Islamic Republic should avoid any move that might remind the world of North Korea because the United States has prepared the ground for world public opinion to strongly react to such moves.” In December 2009, Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, an Iranian-American political scientist who had been an advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team in 2004-2005, published an article in Iran Review, in which he argued as follows: “with North Korea being the only country in the world that has exited the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), Iran should know better than to follow the example that hermetically-closed society. Iran is branding itself as a ‘gateway to the Middle East’ nowadays and exiting the NPT would simply have the adverse effect of isolating Iran in the international arena, weakening the ties of Iran’s international solidarity and subjecting Iran to more willful western machinations with impunity.”
The distrust between Iran’s negotiation-oriented moderates and the hawkish North Korean leaders seems to have been mutual. Judging from the KCNA’s reactions, the interim Iranian nuclear agreement of November 24, 2013 and its positive impact on Iranian-South Korean relations created a kind of foul mood in Pyongyang. In November 2013, during the nuclear talks in Geneva, the KCNA failed to make any reference to Iran. On December 12, the Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA published an article titled “Concession, Yielding to Imperialism Lead to Death” that sharply castigated those Middle Eastern countries (Iraq and Libya) which had at least partly complied with U.S. demands for the dismantlement of their WMD facilities: “It is a foolish act to harbor an illusion about the imperialists and expect any ‘reward’ from them. … If a country takes the choice of making compromise with the imperialists, it will end up losing sovereignty and finally go to ruin. This is proved by what happened in Iraq. … The Iraqi leadership accepted the forced inspection of military installations, including major facilities of the country, as demanded by the U.S. In the end, Iraq allowed the inspection of even the presidential palace. … By doing so, Iraq tried to escape the U.S. imperialists’ invasion and maintain power. But it was a serious miscalculation. The more concessions Iraq made, the greater ones Washington pushed for.” The timing and the content of the article indicated that it was directed against the Iranian nuclear agreement, even if it made no explicit reference to Iran.
In January 2014, the month in which a South Korean parliamentary delegation headed by Speaker Kang Chang-hee paid an unprecedented visit to Iran, KCNA references to Iran again dropped to an unusually low level. On February 6, the Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA pointedly revived the Iraq theme: “Due to the imperialists’ outrageous moves for aggression and pressure, some countries are now yielding to them and compromising with them, failing to say what they should do.… History shows that if a country takes a step back in face of threats of the imperialists, it has to make two steps back, compelling itself to make ten steps back and finally it will not be able to accomplish the popular masses’ cause of independence. … One should not harbor even an iota of illusion about the imperialists but stage an uncompromising struggle against them without making even the slightest concession.” The KCNA covered North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song’s visit in Iran (February 20-March 1) in a conspicuously laconic way, which stood in a marked contrast with the far longer reports of the Iranian news agencies. For instance, IRNA quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as follows: “Iran is hopeful that the current misunderstanding in the Korean Peninsula will be resolved through peaceful means and dialogue to help upgrade the living standard of people and help restore tranquility, stability and security of the region.” In the light of these phenomena, the successful conclusion of a comprehensive Iranian nuclear agreement would probably cause further friction in Iranian-North Korean relations.Main picture: Eric Lafforgue