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Source: DW

May 7, 2024

North Korea and Iran — a new alliance?

Pyongyang and Tehran are united by their grievances against the US and could exchange drone and nuclear secrets within an emerging anti-Western bloc.

By Julian Ryall

North Korea is building new ties with like-minded nations and entrenching older alliances beyond its powerful neighbors Russia and China. Recently, the Iranian regime seems to be of particular interest to Pyongyang and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un .

"Just as in the Cold War, two blocs are emerging and North Korea sees this as a good opportunity to stand with Iran and repeat its opposition to the US," said Kim Sung Kyung, a professor of North Korean society and culture at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. 

"The North probably also sees this as a good opportunity to sell weapons and military technology to Tehran and obtain some sort of economic benefit in return, as there are powerful sanctions on both countries that limit what they are able to obtain," she said.

In late April, North Korea sent a high-level delegation of economic and trade experts on a nine-day visit to Tehran, the first such mission since 2019. As both nations remained tight-lipped on the details, analysts have speculated the talks involved military technology, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Iran denies talks on nuclear program

Tehran, however, rejected assumptions that the delegates discussed cooperation on nuclear technology. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani slammed foreign media for "biased speculations by publishing untrue and baseless news."

The following day, North Korean state media condemned a new round of sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington as "unfair."

Tehran is believed to have provided Russia with thousands of drones for use in Moscow's war against Ukraine, and Iran also launched drone and missile attacks against Israel on April 13 in retaliation for the attack against the Iranian embassy in Syria. The latest round of sanctions targets Iran's capacity to manufacture and use unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Korean Central News Agency also claims the US had imposed new sanctions on Iran's steel, automobile and drone sectors after it "misled the facts as if Iran was responsible for the deterioration of the regional situation."

Alliance of communists and theocrats

"Tehran and Pyongyang have a longstanding relationship, which is in many ways paradoxical, as one is a theocratic Islamic regime and the other is a communist cult of personality," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

"But while they are very different, they also share some similarities. They are both authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of others and share deep grievances against the US and the West in general," he told DW. Iranian leaders frequently refer to the US as the "Great Satan," he pointed out, while Pyongyang's propaganda focuses on "US imperialism."

North Korea focuses on closest allies

While North Korea has been looking to deepen its ties with Iran and countries like Russia, China, Syria and Belarus, Pyongyang has been shutting down its embassies elsewhere. Last year, it shuttered diplomatic missions in Spain, Angola, Uganda, Hong Kong and Nepal. 

Some suggest this is due to Pyongyang simply struggling to afford operating the diplomatic outposts, but analysts have also suggested that North Korean leadership is reducing the risk of its diplomats defecting while abroad.

Instead, Pyongyang appears to be focusing on allies that will support it economically and militarily.

Nuclear and drone secrets

Iran and North Korea can be expected to demonstrate more political and diplomatic support for each other, such as Pyongyang backing Iran over Israel and the US, Pinkston said.

"In the past, North Korea provided Iran with nuclear technology, which upset the Israelis, and it is probable that the North will again be able to share what it has developed," he said. "It will be able to provide data from the nuclear tests it has conducted, it can share best practices on its space program and information from its home-grown satellite program."

Drone technology is almost certain to be of huge interest to both sides as they look to increase the capabilities of a battlefield system that is relatively new but, as has been seen in Ukraine, devastatingly effective, Pinkston said.

"They will have data back on things like battle damage assessments, the technology that is most effective, and possible countermeasures, so they will be able to compare designs."

Pyongyang needs Iranian oil

North Korea is desperate for oil, one of the key products that has been targeted by international sanctions, but it is possible that Iran may be able to skirt monitoring and take advantage of trilateral trade agreements with Russia to provide fuel to the North, Pinkston said.

A little over 22 years after then-US President George W. Bush coined the phrase the "axis of evil" to refer to North Korea, Iran and Iraq, the analysts warn that a far more powerful bloc is emerging. 

"There are 'aggrieved' states who are set against the US-led world order," Pinkston said. "Their national interests may not align perfectly, but they share the common component of opposition to the West."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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