Iran and North Korea are getting closer and closer

After five years of absence, North Korea announced on April 23 with a short statement from the KCNA news agency that a North Korean government delegation was visiting Iran. Although the trip is officially aimed at strengthening economic cooperation, there is a well-founded fear that negotiations for a broader military agreement between the two countries could restart. Among the main concerns of the United States is the fear that Tehran is trying to acquire the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from North Korea. North Korea, in an effort to consolidate its partnership with Iran, supports the Palestinian national cause and criticizes Israel's action against Hamas in Gaza. In state media, North Korean officials accused Israel of perpetrating “terrorism” against Iran following Hamas' attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. According to South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS), North Korean weapons were used by Hamas in its war with Israel. Israel's ambassador to South Korea, Akiva Tor, also said: “Hamas used North Korean-made weapons to attack Israel and it may be that these North Korean weapons have been in Iran for a long time.” The NIS is also trying to understand whether North Korean weapons technology was used in ballistic missiles that Iran launched at Israel during the current conflict.

In addition to this, North Korea has also been accused of providing Russia with ammunition for its war in Ukraine, while Iran has reportedly provided support in the form of artillery shells, drones, ammunition and even ballistic missiles. For its part, Russia has rapidly deepened multi-front cooperation with North Korea in recent months, while maintaining close ties with Iran. Also on the subject of Iran, it is believed to be motivated to expand its acquisition of missile technology from North Korea as part of a broader strategy, aiming to put pressure on Israel on all its borders. This expansion of cooperation between Iran and North Korea could have significant consequences on regional stability and geopolitical dynamics and according to the spokesperson of the US State Department, Matthew Miller, the United States is “incredibly concerned” about the military cooperation ties between the North Korea and Iran.

Bonds that come from afar

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, North Korea sided with Tehran against the United States and the West, supplying conventional weapons to Iran. This collaboration developed into a strong partnership in the development of advanced ballistic missiles in the 1990s. According to a 2019 assessment by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Iran's Shahab-3 ballistic missile appears to have been developed based on designs for North Korea's Rodong missile. In 2003, Iran first used the Emad medium-range ballistic missile, derived from the Shahab-3, in missile strikes against Israel on April 14. In 2006 the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted that Tehran had obtained Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles from North Korea during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. According to the official, however, the Iranian weapons industry no longer needed Pyongyang's assistance. In January 2016, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Iranian individuals for collaborating in the development of North Korea's 80-ton booster rocket, later used for a new space launch vehicle. Three months after the Trump administration abandoned the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed all U.S. sanctions on Iran, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho visited Tehran in May 2018 to discuss negotiating strategies with Washington and ways to circumvent US sanctions.

It is clear that North Korea will also benefit from close ties with Iran. First, it could provide it with another source of military technology besides Russia while second, increased trade and other forms of economic cooperation with Iran could also provide the North Korean regime with foreign currency which he always desperately needs. According to Benjamin Katzeff Silberstei of the Swedish Institute for International Affairs In 2023, North Korea has shown economic regression by intensifying state control over the economy, relegating improving living standards to a secondary consideration. Domestically, North Korea has increased its reliance on heavy industries despite their inefficiencies and inability to compete globally. This will cause a deterioration in the living standards of ordinary citizens, but could provide a sustainable strategy for the North Korean leadership amid rising global tensions.