Last week we covered divergences of opinion between Pyongyang and Tehran in cases such the Palestine liberation movement, Chechnya and the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda after 9/11. In the conflict between the Somalian Islamic Courts Union (or ICU for short, a group the U.S. accused of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists) and the Ethiopian government, North Korean and Iranian interests diverged once again, but the other way around. This time, it was the Workers’ Party of Korea leaders who found themselves on the same side as the United States, while Iran showed increasing sympathy for the forces that Washington confronted in the Horn of Africa.
In 2006, the ICU managed to seize Mogadishu, the capital of war-torn Somalia. This alarmed both Ethiopia and the U.S., which had supported Somalia’s secular warlords against the ICU. In the winter of 2006-2007, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to drive back the ICU forces, and U.S. helicopter gunships launched attacks against suspected al-Qaeda members in southern Somalia. In response, the Iranian media started to criticize the U.S.-Ethiopian intervention. For instance, an article in Tehran Times charged that “the U.S. wants to make Ethiopia its main regional vassal state. … The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which once claimed to be anti-imperialist, wants to consolidate its power through its alliance with the United States.”
Since Eritrea, a long-time rival of Ethiopia, adopted a similarly critical attitude toward the Ethiopian intervention, the Somalian crisis boosted Iranian-Eritrean cooperation. By 2008, Iran had considerably enhanced its presence in this strategically important African state. In turn, the U.S. accused both Eritrea and Iran of providing support to al-Shabaab, a Wahhabi-oriented offshoot of the ICU.
During the crisis of 2006-2007, the DPRK supplied arms to U.S.-backed Ethiopia, rather than the ICU or Eritrea – a double irony if one takes into consideration that Eritrea, an isolationist, militaristic and despotically ruled state, has been justly called the “North Korea of Africa.” Once again, the “enemy of my friend” formula provides an insight into Pyongyang’s motives. The North Koreans must have concentrated on maintaining a foothold in Ethiopia, a country which had been one of their closest African allies in the 1980s and to which Kim Yong Nam paid a visit in the summer of 2007 (KCNA, August 1, 2007). As long as the U.S. provided only political and economic support, but no lethal military aid, to Addis Ababa, the WPK leaders were eager to fill the gap. They could also take advantage of Ethiopia’s dependency on North Korean spare parts for its obsolete DPRK-made weaponry and for its ammunition industry.
In contrast, North Korea’s presence in Eritrea and Somalia seems to have been minimal or non-existent at that time. In 2003-2010, the KCNA made only a handful of laconic references to these two states. Probably this is why the North Koreans continued to supply arms to the very same Ethiopian government whose intervention in Somalia incurred Tehran’s wrath. Their conduct apparently displeased the Iranian leaders. In April 2007, Tehran Times pointedly reprinted a New York Times article which revealed that Washington tacitly allowed Ethiopia to make a new arms deal with the DPRK “because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.”
In recent years, however, North Korean policies toward the Horn of Africa seem to have undergone a process of diversification. On the one hand, the DPRK continued to assist Ethiopia. On the other hand, in 2010-2011 Pyongyang provided dual-use equipment to Eritrea, too. This rapprochement between North Korea and Eritrea may have been facilitated by Iranian-Eritrean cooperation and the arms embargo that the UN had imposed on Eritrea in 2009. DPRK-made small arms also found their way to al-Shabaab, apparently via Libya. If the North Koreans purposefully played a double game, this would be in accordance with their earlier practices. In 1980, they simultaneously tried to improve their relations with Ethiopia and maintain their contacts with Somalia, an approach that Addis Ababa failed to appreciate.
THINGS FALL APART
North Korean and Iranian attitudes were initially in sync, only to diverge later
In the case of another African Sunni Islamist organization, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, North Korean and Iranian attitudes were initially in sync, only to diverge later. From March 2011 to January 2012, the KCNA carried as many as seven articles that favorably reported on the Nigerian government’s efforts to suppress the terrorist activities of Boko Haram.
In June 2012, however, a U.S. decision to designate Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau as a terrorist led to an abrupt shift in Pyongyang’s standpoint. In August, the KCNA condemned “U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Nigeria,” charging that Washington sought to increase its influence in the oil-rich country under the guise of providing military assistance against Boko Haram (KCNA, August 23, 2012). Following this statement, the KCNA ceased to make references to Nigerian terrorism. That is, the North Koreans’ attitude toward this issue was strongly influenced by their preoccupation with the “American threat.”
In contrast, Iranian criticism of Boko Haram has increased, rather than decreased, in 2013-2015. For instance, an editorial in Iran News succinctly, though undiplomatically, described the organization as follows: “Boko Haram, Dirty Terrorists” (February 18, 2014). While Iranian propaganda also used the Boko Haram issue to attack Washington, its approach differed considerably from that of North Korea. Namely, the Iranians hinted that the U.S. actually provided indirect assistance to Boko Haram, because a weakened and destabilized Nigeria would no longer pose competition to American interests in Africa.
The Iranian leaders, on their part, vociferously condemned Boko Haram’s killings and abductions. Their attitude seems to have been motivated by a combination of factors. Anxious to present Iran as a respectable Islamic state, the pragmatic administration of Hassan Rouhani sought to dispel the country’s image as a state sponsor of terrorism by stressing that the main perpetrators of Islamist terrorism were those Sunni extremist groups whom Tehran called takfiri (sectarians who accuse other Muslims of apostasy). In Nigeria, the Iranians relied on Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky and other members of the local Shia community, and hence they had good reason to consider the Wahhabi-oriented Boko Haram a competitor. In 2014-2015, Iranian fears of this kind were further aggravated by Boko Haram’s declarations of support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Sunni Islamist organization that Tehran regarded as a deadly foe.
A(N ISLAMIC) STATE OF AGREEMENT
As far as the Syrian wing of ISIL was concerned, North Korean and Iranian views were quite in concord. Since both Pyongyang and Tehran had a strong stake in keeping the Syrian regime afloat, they naturally viewed the Syrian ISIL terrorists (and in fact any kind of opposition to Bashar al-Assad) as “enemies of their friend.” As early as 2011, North Korean propaganda accused the U.S. of funding dissident groups in Syria (KCNA, April 23, 2011), and in mid-2014, the DPRK ambassador in Damascus publicly expressed his solidarity with the Syrian government against “imperialist conspiracies” and “terrorism.”
North Korean military advisers were reportedly deployed on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war, and they may even have assisted government troops in using chemical weapons against the insurgents. Still, Pyongyang’s contribution was overshadowed by the assistance that Iran, a county of greater economic potential, could (and did) provide. In July 2013 and July 2015, Tehran extended credit loans worth $3.6 billion and 1 billion, respectively, to the Syrian government. North Korean propaganda, for its part, readily echoed Iran’s denials of the Revolutionary Guards’ involvement in the Syrian civil war (KCNA, August 31, 2011).
The Iraqi wing of ISIL was a different kettle of fish. In a marked contrast with its long-established alliance with Syria, the DPRK lacked even basic diplomatic relations with the post-occupation Iraqi state. Under such circumstances, there was little chance for military cooperation between North Korea and the Iraqi government. On the contrary, in September 2012 the Iraqi authorities prevented a Syria-bound North Korean plane from passing through Iraqi airspace, because they suspected that it carried arms. Probably this is why Pyongyang’s attitude toward ISIL activities in Iraq was shaped primarily by its habitual antipathy toward the U.S.
North Korean propaganda … did not criticize the Iraqi wing of ISIL in the same way as it condemned Syrian terrorism
In September 2014, the North Korean media sharply condemned President Obama’s decision to use military force against ISIL in Iraq, much in the same way as they had castigated American actions against al-Qaeda and Boko Haram: “This is a revelation of the U.S. invariable ambition to dominate the world by force by carrying out air raid on Syria and other sovereign states once again under the pretext of ‘busting terrorists.’ … It is not hard to guess what a horrible humanitarian crisis will occur in case the U.S. repeats ‘its anti-terror war’ in Iraq and escalates it into Syria” (KCNA, September 21, 2014; KCNA, September 23, 2014). While North Korean propaganda castigated U.S. intervention in both countries, it did not criticize the Iraqi wing of ISIL in the same way as it condemned Syrian terrorism.
For obvious reasons, Iran saw the problem in a very different light. From Tehran’s perspective, the fall of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of a new, friendly, Shia-dominated Iraqi administration constituted an advantageous development, and therefore the Iranian leaders made determined efforts to keep the beleaguered Iraqi government afloat. Iranian military advisers openly participated in the struggle against ISIL, and Tehran launched a massive propaganda campaign to highlight the violence committed by the “takfiri terrorists.” Since Iran had a strong stake in eliminating ISIL, its attitude toward the U.S.-ISIL conflict was more complex than North Korea’s approach. Instead of categorically condemning U.S. military involvement as such, the Iranians criticized U.S. air strikes against Syrian targets but complained that American actions against the Iraqi wing of ISIL were too limited in scope.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian put it, “The reality is that the United States is not acting to eliminate the ISIL. They are not even interested in weakening the ISIL; they are only interested in managing it. … On the ground, where the U.S. should take serious action, there are no serious actions taking place. The U.S. is not doing anything. One day, they support the ISIL, another day they are against terrorism.”
This approach probably displeased Pyongyang, all the more so because the Iranian leaders purposefully linked their anti-ISIL campaign with efforts to improve their relations with Seoul. In June 2015, Alaeddin Boroujerdi told South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yong that the “U.S. and its allies made a big mistake in supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East, and now curbing them requires international cooperation.” Highlighting “the high standard of human rights in Iran compared to the regional countries,” the Iranian legislator “condemned recent terrorist attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia and France, and said such incidents show that the menace of terrorism is an active threat to global peace and tranquility.”
To be sure, North Korean propaganda also repeatedly condemned the various acts of Islamist terrorism that occurred in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in 2014-2015. In this period, Kim Yong Nam, Premier Pak Pong Ju and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong sent numerous messages of sympathy to the leaders of Egypt, Kuwait, Tunisia, Pakistan, France and Britain. Nevertheless, these gestures seem to have been inspired mainly by Pyongyang’s concerns about a recent U.S. initiative to relist the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism, rather than a genuine anxiety over militant Islamism. The messages of condolences reiterated North Korea’s consistent opposition to all sort of terrorism, and Pyongyang even promised to cooperate with international organizations in the field of “anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism” (KCNA, May 16, 2015).
At the same time, the DPRK vociferously denied its involvement in the Sony hack (which certain American politicians and observers described as cyberterrorism, while Obama preferred the term “cyber vandalism”). These self-serving aspects of North Korea’s attitude were clearly visible in Pyongyang’s reactions to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Two days after the attack, the DPRK expressed its condolences, but otherwise it paid far less attention to the issue than the Iranian media did. While the Iranians combined their condemnation of the attack with hints at ISIL’s involvement and complaints about Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamic cartoons, North Korean propaganda twisted the lessons of the case to protest against the screening of The Interview, the film that triggered the Sony hack. As the KCNA put it, the movie called for “state-sponsored terrorism,” and thus it belonged to the same category as “the hideous terrorist acts that occurred in France” (KCNA, January 21, 2015).
The Iranian news agencies, for their part, seem not to have covered the public dispute over The Interview until the U.S. government started to accuse the DPRK of having engineered the Sony hack. Instead of openly favoring any of the two competing narratives, they quoted Washington’s charges and Pyongyang’s denials side-by-side.
Still, the Iranians probably considered it likely that North Korea was involved in the Sony hack, for they paid considerable attention to the December 2014 hacking attacks against South Korean nuclear plants. In January 2015, Fars News Agency (FNA) cited Western press reports suggesting that the National Security Agency “knew about (the) Sony hack because it hacked North Korea first.” At the same time, FNA pointedly interviewed Professor Christine Hong, a vocal critic of the controversial movie, who stressed that the film “presents a racist narrative about the people of North Korea and is simply a propagandistic work of art that serves the interests of the U.S. propaganda machinery.”
THE CALCULUS OF SUPPORT
All in all, the attitudes that the two “rogue states” adopted toward international terrorism were neither wholly different nor fully alike. Their shared opposition to Washington’s global strategy was not necessarily sufficient to guarantee Iranian-DPRK concord if the two countries’ regional allies (or regional opponents) were not identical. In the protean and labyrinthine world of Islamist movements, the Islamic Republic – for evident reasons – faced more opportunities, but also more challenges, than the North Koreans. In countries with sizable Shia communities (Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria), the Iranians preferred to rely on the Shia groups, but by doing so, they often incurred the wrath of such Sunni Islamist organizations as the Taliban and ISIL.
In Palestine and Somalia, where the population was overwhelmingly Sunni, Iran could find common ground with Sunni Islamists vis-à-vis foreign powers and domestic secular opponents. Caught between the U.S., Sunni Islamism and secular nationalism, the Iranian leaders waged a two- or even three-front struggle, which required a great deal of complicated maneuvering. On the one hand, Iranian propaganda vociferously denied that Tehran was a state sponsor of Islamist terrorism; on the other hand, the Iranian media strongly emphasized that Islamist terrorism did constitute a serious threat, not the least because the Americans were more interested in harassing Iran than in curbing Sunni Wahhabi extremism.
In most cases, North Korean propaganda dismissed the danger of terrorism as a mere pretext for U.S. interference
In contrast, the North Koreans were primarily – though not exclusively – focused on the “American threat.” Their traditional partners (the PFLP, the DFLP, Fatah and the Ethiopian leaders) were of leftist or secular nationalist orientation, and thus Pyongyang’s cooperation with Hezbollah and Hamas seems to have been greatly dependent on the conduit role of Iran and Syria. If Islamist terrorism directly threatened the security of their Syrian, Russian or Chinese allies, the WPK leaders condemned it, but otherwise they were far less concerned about this issue than about America’s anti-terrorist strategy. In most cases, North Korean propaganda dismissed the danger of terrorism as a mere pretext for U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
These circumstances must be taken into consideration if one seeks to assess the security threat posed by Iranian-DPRK cooperation. As Daniel Byman pointed out, states can assist terrorist groups in a variety of ways. The most common forms of support are arms shipments, training and financial and logistical assistance, but if a state is strongly committed to a certain group, it may also provide permanent sanctuaries, diplomatic backing, ideological and organizational guidance and propaganda support. If a state’s cooperation with a terrorist group is of a multifaceted and long-term nature, the resulting threat is evidently greater than if the sponsor provides arms only on an occasional basis and mainly for financial gain. If two or more states cooperate with each other in giving multifaceted assistance to a terrorist organization on a long-term basis (as it occurred in the Iranian-Syrian-North Korean-Hezbollah nexus), the threat will be even more serious. If, however, the potential sponsors are at least partly in disagreement with each other, their conflicts of interest may reduce the threat, or provide diplomatic opportunities for the states interested in curbing terrorism.
Islamic terrorists have committed 25,000 separate violent acts worldwide that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in last 15 years by dayblakelydonaldson on 2015-02-03 21:05:53
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