August 11, 2022

Cracks in the North Korea – Iran Axis

Elements of dissonance in the rhetoric of the Tehran-Pyongyang partnership

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.