INTELBRIEF

May 7, 2024

IntelBrief: Iran and North Korea Draw Closer

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran and North Korea have developed a strategic partnership to address the challenges of U.S.-led sanctions and diplomatic and military containment efforts.
  • Both countries are aligned with Russia and China to counter the U.S. and Western rules-based economic and political order.
  • U.S. and broader Western concerns about an Iran-North Korea military partnership center on decades of missile technology cooperation.
  • Solidifying its partnership with Iran, North Korea has echoed Tehran’s statements on the October 7-related Mideast crisis, and weapons it previously sent Iran have been used by Hamas.

Iran and North Korea are strategic partners of long standing, based on their subjection to extensive U.S. economic sanctions and other U.S. policies designed to counter the threats the two pose to key U.S. partners. Iran is a longstanding adversary of Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and North Korea poses a significant conventional military and unconventional weapons threat to major U.S. allies in Asia, including South Korea and Japan. Iran and North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), have been designated by the United States for decades as state sponsors of terrorism, although North Korea was removed from the “terrorism list” during 2008-17 to encourage it to comply with agreements to limit its nuclear program. Iran has been listed continuously since its designation in 1984.

Sharing Tehran’s antipathy to the United States and broader West, North Korea was one of the few countries willing to challenge Western policy by supplying conventional weapons to Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, a relationship that, in the early 1990s, evolved into a robust partnership in the development of advanced ballistic missiles. Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile appears to have been developed based on North Korea’s Rodong designs, according to a 2019 assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Iran's Emad medium-range ballistic missile, used in the Iranian missile and armed drone attack against Israel on April 14, was based on the design of the Shahab-3, which Iran first put into use in 2003.

In January 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Iranians for traveling to Pyongyang and collaborating on the development of North Korea's 80-ton rocket booster that was subsequently used in a new space launch vehicle. Three months after the Trump administration, in May 2018, abandoned the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed all U.S. sanctions on Iran, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho visited Tehran to discuss negotiation strategies targeting Washington and how to circumvent U.S. sanctions. There were no exchanges of high-level visits between Iran and North Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which North Korea largely shut itself off from the rest of the world. Before that, the last senior North Korean visit to Iran was in August 2019, when a group led by Pak Chol Min, vice chair of Pyongyang’s mostly symbolic parliament, made a weeklong visit.

U.S. pressure, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Mideast crisis sparked by the October 7 Hamas attack have aligned Pyongyang and Tehran not only with each other, but also with Russia and China. The four countries, along with a variety of other partners, seek to undermine U.S. and Western hegemony over the global security, political, and economic order. During April 24-25, a delegation led by Yun Jong Ho, North Korea’s Minster of External Economic Relations, visited Iran, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. His visit occurred one month after his trip to Russia in late March, amid an expansion of North Korean military aid, particularly artillery shells, to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

For its part, Iran has been supporting Russia’s war effort with armed drones and, potentially, a variety of ballistic missiles and other weaponry. One expert on North Korean proliferation in the Middle East and Africa, Bruce Bechtol Jr., commented that some of the weapons that North Korea has sent to Russia have gone to Iran first and then up to the Caspian Sea, and Russia has used those weapons in Ukraine. U.S. and South Korean officials feared the Yun visit could indicate the development of a “worst-case scenario” – the materialization of a North Korea-Iran-Russia military partnership resulting in security threats that span Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. Cho Sang-keun, a South Korean professor who researches military technology, said Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, which have drawn closer since the Ukraine war started and find common cause in their antagonism to the West, form something of an “authoritarian value chain.” On a late April visit to South Korea, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated: “We are concerned about … the Iranians providing weapons to the Russians and the Russians also supporting efforts to help (North Korea) expand their own research into developing weapons. And certainly, that would be the case with Iran as well.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani sought to dampen U.S. and Western criticism of the Yun visit, characterizing his meetings in Iran as focused primarily on bilateral trade, and included attendance at a trade show and meetings with state officials. Kanaani dismissed U.S. and Western assertions the visit was to expand cooperation on missile technology as "biased speculation based on untrue reports." Addressing U.S. and allied concerns that the North Korean visit to Tehran centered on missile technology, a State Department spokesperson told the Voice of America (VOA) Korean Service that the United States "will use all available tools, including interdiction and sanctions, to address such activities." A European Union spokesperson echoed that comment to the VOA, saying the bloc is "following closely Iran-DPRK relations and their potential cooperation that could indeed be concerning on certain issues if it violates existing U.N. sanctions."

Among a core U.S. concern is speculation that Tehran is likely seeking to acquire Pyongyang's Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The U.S. intelligence community has said for nearly two decades that Iran might be trying to develop an ICBM. Still, Tehran has thus far limited its missiles to 2,000-kilometer ranges, enough to reach the entire region but not strategically threaten Western Europe or beyond.

As part of its effort to solidify its partnership with Iran, North Korea is supporting the Palestinian national cause and opposing Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza. In state media outlets, North Korean officials have accused Israel of committing "terrorism" against Iran since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, apparently referring to stepped-up Israeli strikes that have killed several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders in Syria. An article published in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper in December blamed the United States for supporting Israel’s position and perpetuating the conflict. Of material significance, in December, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said North Korean weapons have been turning up in Gaza, appearing to confirm the assessments of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) that North Korean weapons have been used by Hamas in its war with Israel.

Israeli and other officials indicate that the weaponry might have been transferred many years ago and was not sent in response to the IDF offensive in Gaza after October 7. The NIS is reportedly also currently investigating whether North Korean weapons technology was used in the ballistic missiles that Iran launched against Israel on April 14. Experts assess that North Korea would benefit from analyzing the results of that Iranian barrage as both Pyongyang and its rivals build up their militaries to prepare for an eventual conflict. North Korea is expected to study why and how such a large percentage of Iran’s missiles and drones were intercepted in the attack – particularly insofar as Pyongyang’s regional adversaries, South Korea and Japan, are close U.S. allies that possess air and missile defense systems similar to those that Israel fields. For its part, according to experts, Iran is motivated to expand its acquisition of missile technology from North Korea as part of its “unity of fronts” strategy centered on pressuring Israel on all its borders, using missiles supplied to its regional allies such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis.

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