Experts caution against Seoul’s diplomacy focusing ‘too much’ on U.S.
The relationship between North Korea and Iran appears to be becoming closer and more cooperative as international criticism over their controversial nuclear programs increases and economic sanctions squeeze tighter.
But amid growing ties between them, Seoul’s bilateral relations with Pyongyang and Tehran have deteriorated as it moves in sync with U.S. positions on the diplomatic front based on the allies’ “global, multifaceted” strategic partnership.
North Korea and Iran apparently strengthened their security cooperation in 2002 when former U.S. President George W. Bush branded them and Iraq as members of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address ― the first after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in 2001.
“As the two countries were designated as America’s enemy forces and Iraq, one member of the axis of the evil, was brought down, they cannot help but cooperate more closely,” said Chang Byung-ock, Iran expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
“As Tehran cannot cooperate with Western countries in the military technology sector, it seeks to expand cooperation with North Korea and other nations such as Russia and China.” Chang also mentioned the ongoing rivalry between the two blocs ― one made up of North Korea, Iran, China and Russia, and another consisting of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.“It is a hegemonic fight between the two blocs in the region with each moving in pursuit of their national interests,” he said.
“With China and Russia backing it, Iran will continue its political, diplomatic and military cooperation with its friends. But on the economic front, as South Korea is better in all sectors, it will seek cooperation with Seoul.”
Since Pyongyang and Tehran established diplomatic ties in 1973, the two have gradually expanded their military, economic and diplomatic cooperation.
In 1983, the two signed an agreement on bilateral support for developing ballistic missiles. Reports say they have since widened their military cooperation and exchanges, and moved in tandem against what they call America’s imperialistic moves.
The two sides reportedly signed a variety of pacts including ones on aeronautical operations in 1986, on oil supply in 1991 and on security cooperation in 1996
Amid growing pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear programs, the North appears unnerved. Its state media outlets recently berated the international community for “infringing on Iran’s state sovereignty.” “Everybody knows which one stands on the side of justice ― Iran regarding peaceful nuclear activities as its sovereign right or the U.S. viewing its activities as a pain in the neck and moving to wage a war by mobilizing its allies,” Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a piece published last Sunday.
In an apparent display of close friendship, Iran sent a congratulatory letter to North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un after he was inaugurated late last year as the supreme commander of the communist state’s 1.2 million-strong military.
Though the two countries appear isolated internationally because of their nuclear programs, experts said that there are differences in their nuclear situations.
“Unlike North Korea, Iran has been being inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency and maintained its membership in the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. It has also continued its negotiations with the West,” said Lee Hee-soo, cultural anthropology professor at Hanyang University.

“On top of that, Iran is not yet in violation of the international law. (The West) now takes issue with the ‘possibility’ of their development of nuclear weapons, not any existing arsenal. So their nuke cases look similar on the surface, but they are different in fact.”
The North conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, seeking to have “strong nuclear deterrence” against enemy forces that pose a threat to its regime. Iran has been developing nuclear programs, arguing that they are purely for “peaceful, civilian purposes.”
With the two getting closer, South Korea seems increasingly estranged from them as it moves in concert with the U.S. on a variety of global issues.
South Korea recently joined Washington-led oil embargos against Iran, apparently hurting ties with Tehran, from which nearly 10 percent of its oil imports came last year.
Lee of Hanyang University cautioned against a Seoul diplomacy that focuses too much on relations with the U.S.
“Iran is our crucial trading partner. Given its rich resources such as natural gas, oil and others, and its potential of leading another economic boom in the Middle East, Iran is a great strategic market,” said Lee.
“South Korea needs to pursue a ‘balanced’ diplomatic strategy that maintains the alliance with the U.S., but at the same time does not abandon its ties with Iran.”
Experts say that the long-standing alliance between Seoul and Washington is of paramount importance at a time when the North continues to pose a security threat to its southern neighbor with its asymmetrical arms such as nuclear weapons.
Some, however, noted that there is a “trap” in the Korea-U.S. alliance. Examples include Seoul’s participation in sanctions against Iran and its decision to send some 300 peacekeeping troops to South Sudan this year.
Seoul’s participation in sanctions against Iran is the worst trap of the Korea-U.S. alliance. It is not aimed at deterring the North (which is the initial purpose of the alliance) nor at peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear issue,” said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University.