North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran share the dubious distinction of having been designated state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State. Iran was added to Washington’s terrorism list in January 1984 (mainly for its involvement in the attacks that Shia Islamist militants had launched against the U.S. embassy and the U.S. peace-keeping force in Lebanon), and has remained on it ever since. In May 2015, President Obama, despite his strong commitment to a nuclear deal with Tehran, reaffirmed that “Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.” Having blown up a South Korean airliner in November 1987, North Korea made to the list in January 1988.
Anxious to achieve the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, in October 2008 the U.S. government de-listed the DPRK, but even this concession could not prevent the breakdown of the nuclear talks. In recent years, a number of American politicians, human rights activists and security analysts (including Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, lawyer Joshua Stanton and Professor Bruce E. Bechtol) called for re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, on such grounds as Pyongyang’s involvement in the Sony hack and its continued support for Middle Eastern terrorists. Among other things, they pointed out that North Korea’s assistance to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist organization in Lebanon designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group, constituted an integral element of the Iranian-DPRK alliance. That is, the two regimes were not just similarly ready to sponsor international terrorism but also actively cooperated with each other (and with Syria, a third state sponsor) in this field.
Indeed, the shared goal of enabling Hezbollah to conduct an effective campaign against Israel did create a trilateral nexus between Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang. In terms of ideological guidance, military training, organizational assistance and diplomatic support, Iran has played a paramount role from the very beginning. At the same time, the geographical distance between Iran and Lebanon compelled Tehran to rely on Syria as a conduit, all the more so because the Syrian leaders traditionally aspired to act as power brokers in Lebanese politics.
Without their logistical and political cooperation, Iranian aid could not have reached Hezbollah as easily as it did. In effect, Tehran has been far more active in providing guidance to Hezbollah, but Damascus retained considerable ability to block the organization’s steps that clashed with Syria’s own specific interests. For instance, Hezbollah’s rivalry with another Lebanese Shia group, the Syrian-backed Amal, repeatedly pitted Damascus and Hezbollah against each other.
Compared with the two Middle Eastern powers, North Korea has been only a junior partner in the trilateral nexus that sought to keep Hezbollah afloat. Preoccupied with disseminating their own Juche doctrine, the Workers’ Party of Korea leaders could not match Iran’s ideological appeal to the Shia militants, while in the field of logistics, their arms shipments to Hezbollah were as much dependent on Syrian cooperation as Iranian aid was. Consequently, Pyongyang’s assistance to Hezbollah was more suited to reinforce the DPRK’s alliance with Iran and Syria than to make North Korea an independent player in Lebanese politics.
Still, North Korea’s material contribution proved fairly significant. The DPRK trained Hezbollah militants, supplied multiple rocket launchers and other missiles, and helped the organization in building sophisticated underground bunker systems. Pyongyang’s readiness to support Hezbollah also manifested itself in the sphere of propaganda. The KCNA frequently condemned Israel’s military actions in Lebanon, described Hezbollah as a “patriotic forces organization” (KCNA, May 23, 2011) and lauded its ability to withstand the Israeli onslaught during the 2006 Lebanon War. During the Arab Spring, the KCNA quoted Hezbollah’s pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian and anti-American statements with evident approval.
Nonetheless, this joint effort to keep Hezbollah afloat constituted but one segment of the highly complex picture that one can draw about North Korean and Iranian attitudes toward international terrorism. If even this remarkably stable multilateral partnership was occasionally affected by conflicts of interest, it is hardly surprising that North Korean and Iranian objectives did not necessarily coincide when the two “rogue states” had to adopt a position toward such a wide variety of extremist organizations as Hamas in Palestine, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Uyghur militants in China’s Xinjiang province or the Chechen separatists in Russia. Sometimes these divergences were of little significance, but in a few cases Iranian and North Korean priorities proved so different that U.S. efforts to crush certain extremist groups were fiercely condemned by one state but tacitly tolerated or implicitly supported by the other.
A CLASH OF DEFINITIONS
The potential causes of such Iranian-North Korean discord may be better understood if one draws inspiration from two old Middle Eastern proverbs. According to a well-known Arabic proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” whereas a Persian proverb makes the following observation: “Enemies are of three kinds: enemies, the enemies of friends, and the friends of enemies.” That is, a state’s attitude toward a terrorist group is shaped not only by its own specific interests but also by its need to find and retain allies. Unfortunately, the aforesaid two formulas may occasionally clash with each other. If a terrorist group is not only an enemy of my enemy but also an enemy of my friend, then what am I to do?
Ironically, some of the cases in which North Korea and Iran adopted largely similar positions involved terrorist organizations of whose activities the two “rogue regimes” disapproved, rather than approved. For instance, the “enemy of my friend” formula strongly influenced both North Korean and Iranian attitudes toward those terrorist attacks that Caucasian separatist and Islamist militants launched against Russian civilian targets.
… the KCNA published a long article that sharply condemned ‘the dastardly terrorism committed by Chechen rebels’
By disassociating themselves from these deeds or openly condemning them, Pyongyang and Tehran sought to reinforce their ties to Moscow. In 2000-2005 and 2010-2011, Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, frequently sent messages of sympathy to his Russian counterpart whenever the Chechen terrorists carried out some particularly gruesome attack. In response to the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, the KCNA published a long article that sharply condemned “the dastardly terrorism committed by Chechen rebels,” and stressed that “Chechnya is an inalienable legitimate part of the territory of the Russian Federation” (KCNA, October 26, 2002).
In contrast with North Korea’s unequivocally pro-Russian position, the Iranian media covered the Chechen crisis in a more balanced way, expressing sympathy for the plight of the Caucasian Muslims. Still, the Iranian leaders refrained from a systematic criticism of Moscow’s Chechen policy, and in some cases (like in March 2010), they openly condemned the terrorist acts committed against Russian civilians. Their low-key approach to the Caucasian crisis was motivated not only by their need to ensure Russian support against American pressure but also by their fear of Sunni Wahhabi extremism. Since such ideas did find a foothold among the Caucasian militants and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (with which Iran was on a collision course) went so far as to recognize Chechnya as an independent state, Iran had good reason to tread cautiously.
Similarly, the central position that China occupied in North Korean and Iranian alliance policies made both states disinclined to express support for the separatist and Islamist militants who challenged Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang by violent means. North Korean propaganda paid little attention to Xinjiang, but when it did, it praised Beijing’s efforts to develop the province, and condemned the terrorist attacks that occurred in Kunming and Urumqi in the spring of 2014. Pyongyang’s intention to use this issue for diplomatic purposes became particularly obvious when the KCNA republished a Chinese article that accused Western powers of supporting the Uyghur separatists and hindering Beijing’s anti-terrorist measures (KCNA, July 26, 2011). For religious reasons, Iran showed far stronger interest in Xinjiang than the DPRK did, and the Iranian media did periodically complain about the repressive practices of the Chinese authorities. Still, the Iranian leaders, as John W. Garver put it, “scrapped export of the (Islamic) revolution to China for the sake of cooperation with China’s government,” not the least because there was “increasing convergence between Chinese and Iranian interests in countering Sunni fundamentalism in Central Asia.” In response to the Urumqi bombing of May 2014, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry “deplored that the terrorist groups have hidden themselves under the sacred name of Islam.”
RESISTANCE HERO OR IDIOTIC TRAITOR?
North Korea’s traditional Palestinian partners were various leftist and secular nationalist groups
Due to the intense polarization and factionalization of Palestinian politics, Palestine turned out to be a less favorable terrain for Iranian-DPRK concord than Lebanon, Russia and China. To paraphrase our original proverbs, the problem was that while Pyongyang and Tehran had a common enemy (Israel), their friends were not necessarily identical. North Korea’s traditional Palestinian partners were various leftist and secular nationalist groups, such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Nayef Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and the umbrella organization under which all these guerrilla and terrorist groups were supposed to interact: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Prone to keeping several irons in the fire, the DPRK provided military training, arms and money not only to the PLO but also to the competing individual organizations, often using Iraq or Syria as a conduit. The friction caused by Pyongyang’s multidirectional policy may be illustrated by the following example.
In 1979, the visit of a PFLP delegation greatly irritated the PLO diplomats in Pyongyang, because the North Koreans informed them about the visit barely an hour before the delegation’s arrival. It provided little comfort to them that the PFLP men also departed in a foul mood, having failed to achieve their diplomatic aims. The Oslo Accords (1993-1995), which the Fatah-dominated PLO concluded with Israel but which the PFLP and the DFLP rejected, made it even more difficult for Pyongyang to avoid being caught up in these internal disputes. Still, North Korea eventually managed to persuade a number of leftist and secular nationalist Palestinian and Arab organizations (including Fatah, the PFLP, and the Syrian and Iraqi Communist parties) to issue a pro-DPRK statement with regard to an inter-Korean naval incident (KCNA, July 25, 1999).
Notably, Hamas, a Sunni Islamist organization known for its penchant for terrorism, was conspicuously ignored by the KCNA until 2004. Pyongyang’s preference for the PLO also manifested itself in such acts as a North Korean statement issued in support of the Hebron Agreement (which the PLO concluded with Israel but which Hamas rejected) and the visit of a Fatah delegation in the DPRK (KCNA, January 20, 1997; KCNA, April 9, 1998). This attitude stood in marked contrast with Iran’s. The Iranian leadership’s ideological preference for Hamas was reinforced by their shared opposition to the Oslo Accords. As early as 1989, after Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denounced him as a “traitor and an idiot.” The Iranian media extensively covered Hamas’ complaints about the repressive measures that the Palestinian Authority officials took against its members. During a 1998 visit to Iran, Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin happily declared that, “the Iranian authorities and nation pledged their full support.”
In 2000-2007, the Second Palestinian Intifada and the interrelated process of Hamas-Fatah rapprochement led to a gradual convergence between the Iranian and North Korean standpoints. On the one hand, Iran started to praise Arafat for his resistance to Israel, not the least because he decided to release the Hamas militants held in PLO prisons. On the other hand, in 2004 the KCNA sharply criticized a lethal Israeli attack on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, describing Hamas as “a pillar of the resistance forces.”
Stressing that the Fatah leaders also condemned the killing of al-Rantisi, the article argued that “the U.S.” loudmouth(ed) ‘anti-terrorist’ war is only sparking an evil cycle of terrorism and that Israel along with the U.S. is the chieftain of terrorism.” (KCNA, April 20, 2004). In 2007, both Iran and the DPRK welcomed a Fatah-Hamas agreement to form a national unity government (KCNA, February 19, 2007). While the Fatah-Hamas talks repeatedly broke down over renewed disputes, the fact that they occurred at all may have influenced Pyongyang’s growing readiness to support Hamas.
In 2009, the KCNA repeatedly castigated Israeli and U.S. efforts to crush Hamas and designate it as a terrorist organization. It occurred in the same period that Israel and other states intercepted several North Korean arms shipments that seem to have been sent not only to Hezbollah but also to Hamas. In 2011, a KCNA article illuminated the Iranian-DPRK-Fatah-Hamas nexus as follows: “Head of Iran’s Majlis (Parliament) National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Alaeddin Boroujerdi said … that Tehran supports reconciliation between Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah. … The United States and its allies are not pleased with the agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas, he said.” (KCNA, May 4, 2011).
ANTI-U.S. AND AGAINST AL-QAEDA?
While the Palestinian intifada stimulated a convergence between North Korean and Iranian standpoints, the first stage of U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and its external backers (1998-2001) led to considerable divergence between them. A comparative analysis of North Korean and Iranian reactions to the U.S. strikes at Sudan and Afghanistan reveals that the “enemy of my enemy” formula was not the only factor influencing their responses to the U.S.-al-Qaeda conflict. From the perspective of Pyongyang and Tehran, it also mattered a lot whether the states on which Washington inflicted retaliation were in a friendly, hostile or neutral relationship with the two “rogue regimes.”
Pyongyang’s statement laid the main emphasis on North Korea’s own status as ‘a dignified UN member’ that had ‘consistently opposed all sorts of terrorist acts’
In August 1998, both the Iranian and the North Korean foreign ministries issued statements condemning the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania – Tehran a day after the bombing, Pyongyang only six days later. These declarations were strongly motivated by the need to publicly disassociate the two “state sponsors” from this especially destructive attack, and thus lessen the risk of being held responsible by the U.S. Indeed, Pyongyang’s statement laid the main emphasis on North Korea’s own status as “a dignified UN member” that had “consistently opposed all sorts of terrorist acts,” and it lacked such expressions of condolences that Kim Yong Nam routinely used in his messages to Russia (KCNA, August 13, 1998).
When the U.S. retaliated by launching cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda bases in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (which Washington considered, probably erroneously, a manufacturer of chemical weapons for al-Qaeda), the WPK leaders at first adopted a low-key attitude but later they made it clear how they viewed Washington’s actions. In early 1999, the KCNA declared that America’s “random military attacks on Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Sudan were indicative of the ferocity and arrogance of the U.S. policy of aggression.” (KCNA, February 5, 1999).
In the spring of 2001, North Korea raised these charges in an even more explicit form: “The United States is now loudmouthed about ‘terrorism’ committed by other countries … (but) the U.S. imperialists are the real culprit of terrorism … the U.S. mounted missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan under the pretext of ‘prevention of terrorism.’” (KCNA, March 20, 2001). On September 12, 2001, the Foreign Ministry called the 9/11 attacks “a very regretful and tragic incident,” but again refrained from expressing condolences (KCNA, September 12, 2001). Two days after the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the DPRK reiterated its “consistent opposition” to terrorism but hinted that it considered the American strategy of military retaliation a threat to its own security (KCNA, October 9, 2001). Such fears presumably influenced North Korea’s decision to sign the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and the 1979 treaty against hostage-taking. Still, as early as October 2001 North Korean propaganda started to criticize the U.S. war in Afghanistan (KCNA, October 23, 2001), and in 2002, it adopted an increasingly shrill tone.
Apart from Pyongyang’s preoccupation with the American threat, North Korea’s disapproval of the 1998 cruise missile strikes was probably also influenced by its friendly relations with the Islamist-oriented Sudanese regime (which the U.S. also designated a state sponsor of terrorism on the grounds that it supported Hamas and temporarily harbored Osama bin Laden). As early as 1993, Iran was buying weapons from North Korea for Sudan. High-ranking Sudanese delegations visited the DPRK in the late 1990s, too (KCNA, October 27, 1997; KCNA, May 2, 1999).
As far as Sudan was concerned, the Iranians shared Pyongyang’s critical view of Washington’s retaliatory actions. On August 27, 1998, Iranian Health Minister Mohammad Farhadi condemned the U.S. missile strike at the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. Afghanistan was quite another matter, however. Iran’s relations with the Taliban regime were extremely tense, not the least because Tehran regarded the pre-1996 administration of Burhanuddin Rabbani, rather than the Islamic Emirate, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. In August 1998, Iranian support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance induced the Taliban militia to execute 10 Iranian diplomats. Under such conditions, the Iranian leaders were hardly inclined to publicly condemn America’s actions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
On the contrary, they were at least as much alarmed by the prospect of a U.S.-Taliban rapprochement as they feared the consequences of an American military strike on Afghanistan. In October 1998, when Washington helped Kyrgyzstan to intercept an arms shipment to the Northern Alliance, an Iranian observer pointedly asked “why the U.S. spies do not do the same on the other side where (the) Taliban are receiving enormous amount of weaponry from foreign countries.” The Iranian media also quoted the Alliance’s complaints about Osama bin Laden’s presence: “We do not want to be showered by rockets once again because of him. He should leave Afghanistan.”
In sum, the Taliban regime was Iran’s enemy and an enemy of Iran’s friend. This is why the Iranian leaders used their contacts with the Alliance to assist the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the nomination of Hamid Karzai as president. Their pragmatic attitude sharply differed from North Korea’s knee-jerk opposition to the invasion. Still, the Iranians also called for an early U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and their cooperation with Washington ground to a halt as soon as January 2002.
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Featured Image: Hamas graffiti, by Wikimedia Commons