In recent months, Iran and North Korea have become the two principal military backers of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. While Iran’s drone exports and North Korea’s artillery shell shipments to the Russian military have been widely discussed, cooperation between Iran and North Korea has continued under the radar.
On February 1, Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Mohammad Hossein Bagheri congratulated Pak Su-Il on his appointment as Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. Bagheri’s statement stressed the importance of boosting cooperation between Iran and North Korea against “unilateralism” and “disruptive measures of global security.” While Bagheri’s comments reflected Iran’s long-standing antipathy toward US foreign policy, they were also a warning shot at Seoul. On January 16, South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol had called Iran the “enemy” of the United Arab Emirates and the Iranian Foreign Ministry blasted his “interfering statements.”
Bagheri’s comments on North Korea were possibly triggered by this dispute, as Pak Su-Il’s appointment occurred on December 28, 2022, and Iran stayed silent afterwards. They also reflect Iran and North Korea’s strengthening of ties since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in May 2018. Over the past five years, Iran and North Korea have collaborated on ballistic missile production while creating openings for stronger economic ties. As prospects for a JCPOA revival are slim and hardline President Ebrahim Raisi holds the reins of power, the near-term trajectory of Iran-North Korea relations is sanguine.
How Trump’s JCPOA Withdrawal Brought Iran and North Korea Closer Together
Although North Korea’s arms transfers to Iran during its 1980-1988 war with Iraq laid the foundation for a lasting partnership, bilateral relations cooled during Hassan Rouhani’s first term as Iran’s president. After the JCPOA was struck in July 2015, Rouhani courted commercial ties with South Korea and subtly criticized North Korea. During South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s May 2016 visit to Tehran, Rouhani called for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in and the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
After President Donald Trump placed Iran “on notice” in February 2017, Iranian officials anticipated the JCPOA’s dissolution and return of Western sanctions. These fears encouraged solidarity with North Korea, which also faced intensified US sanctions. After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a review on US sanctions against Iran in April 2017, hardline media outlet Kayhan declared, “North Korea has fulfilled all of its commitments and America has fulfilled none of them! And this is the story of the Americans themselves.” It framed North Korea’s experience as a cautionary tale for Iran and lambasted Rouhani’s “passive policy of protecting the JCPOA at any cost.”
Advancements in Iran’s ballistic missile program underscored the value of North Korean technology. Iran’s January 2017 launch of the Khorramshahr ballistic missile sparked fears of Tehran’s renewed military cooperation with North Korea. The Khorramshahr resembled the Musudan or Hwasong-10, a North Korean ballistic missile that Pyongyang tested eight times in 2016. While North Korea’s sale of R-27 engines to Iran has not been confirmed, reports of Iran’s purchase of Hwasong-10s date back to 2005 and US intelligence has tracked Iran’s quest for a North Korean high-performance propulsion system since 2010.
Pressure from Iranian hardliners and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program, encouraged Rouhani to reconsider his critical attitude toward North Korea. In August 2017, President of the Presidium of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam went on a ten-day trip to Tehran and attended Rouhani’s second term inauguration ceremony.
This trip underscored the revival of Iran-North Korea relations. Ali Larijani, the hardline speaker of Iran’s parliament, told Kim Yong Nam “Your stability in the face of American bullying is commendable.” Kim Yong Nam replied by praising Iran’s ballistic missile launches and declaring “Tehran and Pyongyang have a common enemy.” Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal further accelerated the development of Iran-North Korea relations. Ahead of Trump’s June 2018 meeting with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi urged North Korea to “remain on high alert” as Trump was unpredictable and willing to scrap agreements.
Hours after the US reinstated nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in August 2018, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran. The meeting included an exchange of ideas on how to combat US sanctions and Ri Yong Ho’s consultations with Zarif on how to extract US concessions in nuclear-related negotiations. This set the tone for deeper cooperation between the two sanctioned countries in the post-JCPOA era.
Iran’s Collaboration with North Korea Since the JCPOA’s Collapse
Since the JCPOA withdrawal, Iran and North Korea’s military cooperation has likely accelerated. As the last known reports of North Korean nuclear scientists visiting Iran date back to May 2015, military cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang is likely confined to the ballistic missile sphere. The partnership between Iran’s Shahid Hemat Industrial Group (SHIG) and North Korea’s Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) has aided ballistic missile cooperation between the two countries.
Although US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that Iran-North Korea missile cooperation had slowed in 2016, the JCPOA did not completely stop Iran’s ballistic missile cooperation with North Korea. Iran’s 2016 expulsion of Kim Yong Chol and Jang Jung Son, two operatives at the North Korean Embassy in Tehran involved in military-related sanctions evasion, was a possible smokescreen. In March 2016, the US Treasury Department sanctioned SHIG’s Shahid Haj Ali Mohaved Research Center for ballistic missile cooperation with North Korea. North Korea’s July 2017 tests of the Hwasong-14 and November 2017 launch of the Hwasong-15 added to these concerns, as these missiles had RD-250 engines with an 80-ton thrust.
The JCPOA withdrawal accelerated this cooperation and sharpened the US’s response. In March 2019, the UN Panel of Experts investigated the return of KOMID and Green Pine operatives to Tehran. The UN Panel of Experts received testimony that the two North Korean weapons firms were “extremely active in Iran.” Iran’s non-compliance with UN Panel of Experts requests for passport information about suspected KOMID and Green Pine operatives fueled speculation about illicit transactions in the ballistic missile sphere.
In September 2020, the US Treasury Department sanctioned former SHIG director Seid Mir Ahmad Nooshin and the director of the Shahid Haj Ali Mohaved Research Center Ashagar Esma’ilpur. Nooshin was involved in the production of Iran’s 80-ton rocket booster and travelled to North Korea to negotiate a contract on its development. Esma’ilpur was involved in logistical cooperation between SHIG and KOMID and solicited aid from North Korea on the construction of Iran’s space launch vehicle (SLV). At the direction of five Iranian officials, SHIG reportedly invited 13 KOMID specialists, who were experts on liquid-propelled ballistic missile systems, to help Iran’s SLV program.
SHIG’s linkages to North Korea were confirmed by a February 2021 UN Panel of Experts report, which provided evidence of material transfers as recently as December 2020. In response to these allegations and reports of long-range missile development cooperation with North Korea, Iran’s UN Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi accused the UN Panel of Experts of using “false information and fabricated data.” Nevertheless, ongoing upgrades in Iran and North Korea’s missile programs, and the expiration of UN ballistic missile-related sanctions on Iran in October 2023 creates fruitful ground for further cooperation.
Efforts to bolster non-military cooperation between Iran and North Korea have been less successful. In December 2022, Iran’s Deputy Science Minister Hashem Dadashpour and North Korea’s Ambassador to Iran Han Song U discussed educational cooperation. These discussions included creating higher education programs in Iran for North Korean students, short-term study exchanges and spreading the Persian language to North Korea.
Dadashpour’s meeting sparked controversy amongst Iranian moderates and expatriates. In its report on Dadashpour’s meeting, pro-Rouhani outlet Aftab News speculated that North Korea’s Kwangmyong Intranet network could serve as an inspiration for Iran’s “national information network” proposal. Through exchanges of information technology specialists, Iran could censor unfavorable international media coverage North Korea-style. Iranian academic Mehdi Zakerian asked why children of Iranian officials can study in the US and Europe, while the Iranian government encourages study in North Korea.
In the future, Iran and North Korea could cooperate on Syria’s reconstruction. Before the UN mandate to expel North Korean overseas workers took effect in 2019, Syria hosted at least 800 North Korean military personnel and construction workers. In August 2022, the Syrian- Korean Joint Technical Committee discussed strategies to rehabilitate Syria’s production lines and rebuild industrial machinery damaged in the civil war. As Iranian companies provide construction materials to Syria and view housing, bridge and dam construction in Syria as key expansion frontiers, cooperation with North Korea could take hold.
While the substantive scope of Iran-North Korea cooperation in the post-JCPOA period has been modest, both countries appear determined to strengthen their partnership. As North Korea and Iran align against Israel in its escalating war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, their cooperation could deepen in the coming months.