• Login

Cross-Regional Talks

Analyzing North Korea's rare diplomatic visit to Iran

13 May 2024

State media of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced an unusual visit by a ministerial delegation from Pyongyang to Tehran from April 23 to May 2, 2024. More than four years after official visits between the two countries were suspended, the rare visit sparked controversy about its purpose and timing. It was described as a rare, public, and ambiguous visit, with the North Korean delegation led by Yun Jong-ho, minister of external economic relations, known for his active role in recent years in fostering North Korea's economic relations with other countries, notably Syria, and Russia, which he visited in late March 2024 as part of efforts to strengthen relations between the two countries.

Yun's visit to Iran came amidst significant and pivotal regional and international developments, including the repercussions of Russia's war on Ukraine, which broke out on February 22, 2022, and the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the October 7, 2023, attack, and culminating in the recent military exchange between Iran and Israel in the past weeks. In light of these developments, Western concerns escalated over the cooperation of the most hostile countries, Iran and North Korea, and the impact of this cooperation on regional security and Western interests, especially since Tehran was among the first destinations of North Korea's external visits following Pyongyang's abandonment of its policy of isolation from the outside world, except China, and the closure of its borders during the Covid-19 pandemic, until cautiously reopening its borders in 2023, indicating the uniqueness of its relationship with Iran.

Significance of the Timing

The visit of the North Korean delegation to Iran is significant not only because it is a rare public visit but also due to its timing. The last ministerial-level visit announced by the two countries was by North Korea's former foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, to Iran in August 2018. The recent North Korean delegation's visit to Iran occurred amidst several global developments, particularly involving Pyongyang and Tehran. The most important implications of the timing of this visit include the following:

1. Growing Western concerns over military and nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran:

The visit comes on the heels of US reports indicating close military cooperation between North Korea and Iran regarding ballistic missile programs. Both countries are likely exchanging technical expertise and components used in missile manufacture, in addition to their cooperation in developing their nuclear programs.

In recent years, North Korea has provided multiple versions of medium and long-range missiles to Iran as part of several arms deals. Following the Iranian attack on Israel on April 13, 2024—launched in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, earlier in the month, which killed 16 people, including the Quds Force's commander for Syria and Lebanon, Major General Mohammad-Reza Zahedi, and six other officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—several U.S. reports indicated the possibility of Iran using North Korean missile technology in this attack. The reports were based on images and specifications of remnants of missiles used in the attack, indicating that they were Iranian Emad missiles. These medium-range ballistic missiles are based on the Shahab-3 missile, believed to be a version of the North Korean NoDong missile, which Tehran requested to purchase from Pyongyang in 1993. Pyongyang later worked on building a NoDong manufacturing facility under the name Shahab-3 in Iran.

2. Suspicions about military cooperation between North Korea and Russia:

A Reuters report from February 2024 indicated that Iran provided Moscow with ballistic missiles for use in its war with Ukraine, suspected to have been obtained from North Korea, which, according to Western reports, supplied Moscow with missiles and artillery. However, both countries denied the validity of these reports.

Additionally, on March 18, 2024, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik confirmed that North Korea had supplied Russia with seven thousand containers of munitions and other military equipment for use in Ukraine. In exchange, Moscow provided technical assistance to North Korea's emerging satellite surveillance program. This arrangement was part of a weapons deal finalized during North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's visit to Russia in September 2023.

Furthermore, Russia's use of veto power in the Security Council on March 28, 2024, against a resolution to renew the mandate of the Panel of Experts (PoE), tasked with monitoring compliance with and enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea, has raised concerns in the United States and the West. The resolution, annually adopted by the Security Council, ensures the implementation of sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2009.

3. Claims about North Korean support for Operation Al-Aqsa Flood:

South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) claimed on January 8, 2024, that Hamas used North Korean-made weapons in its October 7 attack on Israel, despite Pyongyang's repeated denials of any arms transactions with Palestinian organizations. The South Korean spy agency confirmed a report published on the website of the U.S. public broadcaster Voice of America, alleging that Palestinian fighters used an F-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher manufactured in North Korea. The agency supported this claim with photos of a North Korean rocket part showing a combination of Korean characters and numbers.

Previously, on October 26, 2023, the Israeli army accused Hamas of using weapons and ammunition manufactured in North Korea and Iran during Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. The army displayed a variety of weapons it claimed to have recovered from southern communities attacked by the militants. These weapons included landmines, North Korean rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), homemade drones, and Iranian-made mortar rounds.

Visit's Objectives 

Media outlets in both Iran and North Korea reported that the purpose of the visit announced in late April 2024 was to promote and deepen economic cooperation between the two countries. However, several questions arise about the real reasons behind this visit, its timing, and the purpose of the announcement. The most important of these objectives can be summarized as follows:

1. Sending a message to Washington and the West:

The intended message is that the pressures exerted on Pyongyang and Tehran will not prevent them from bolstering their relationship and developing cooperation despite the direct sanctions imposed on their economic, military, and nuclear activities. This message also suggests alignment with other countries that oppose US influence, including Russia and China.

Furthermore, the visit cannot be viewed separately from the direct military escalation between Iran and Israel in April 2024. It serves as a challenge from North Korea and Iran to both the United States and Israel amidst their growing concerns about cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran. International developments are aiding these two countries in strengthening their cooperation with other nations like China, a competitor of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, and Russia, which received support from North Korea in its ongoing war with Ukraine.

2. Countering US pressure:

The United States seeks to tighten the noose on both North Korea and Iran by imposing severe sanctions on their economic, military, and nuclear activities. It also aims to curb Pyongyang and Tehran's attempts to expand their network of relationships to counter US influence in their regional environment. For example, Washington threatened to impose sanctions on Pakistan over its commercial dealings with Iran after Tehran and Islamabad signed eight cooperation agreements in various fields, including security and economy, during a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Pakistan on April 23, 2024. Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson of the US Department of State, responded to this by stating, "We advise anyone considering business deals with Iran to be aware of the potential risk of sanctions. However, ultimately, the government of Pakistan can speak to their own foreign policy pursuits."

3. Attempting to circumvent economic sanctions:

The North Korean delegation's visit to Iran came shortly after Washington imposed new sanctions on Iran's drone program and after the European Union announced its intention to impose a new set of sanctions on Iranian drone and missile programs. This prompted Tehran to expand its cooperation with its allies and friends to mitigate the impact of sanctions imposed by the United States and Western allies. The Iranian effort was confirmed in statements by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani on April 29, 2024, revealing that a North Korean delegation attended a Tehran expo a week earlier and engaged in discussions on bilateral trade with both Iranian government officials and the private sector.

Similarly, North Korea, suffering from the political and economic isolation imposed by international sanctions, has experienced a significant economic downturn and shortages of energy and goods. These problems are driving Pyongyang to seek ways to escape the grip of sanctions by exchanging military expertise and equipment for Iranian oil and essential goods. Trade between the two countries is likely based on barter due to the international sanctions imposed on them. Through this system, North Korea supports Iran militarily with ballistic missiles in exchange for Iranian oil and needed goods.

Despite the lack of precise estimates of the volume of trade and economic cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang, Iran announced that it bought goods worth USD 700 million from North Korea in March 2024, of which only USD 200 million has been paid. This indicates that the sanctions significantly affect Tehran's ability to obtain the necessary foreign currency to repay its debts and external obligations. It is likely that the trade between North Korea and Iran relies on barter, given indications of a decline in North Korea's foreign trade in recent years.

4. Strengthening military and nuclear cooperation:

Several reports by the United Nations Panel of Experts (PoE), tasked with monitoring compliance with UN sanctions on North Korea, have indicated increased cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran in the field of ballistic missiles, with equipment and spare parts being transferred to Iran through a third country. Iran appears to be in urgent need of advancing its missile program following issues with launching and accurately guiding its missiles during its direct attack on Israel.

With no announcement of the outcome of the North Korean delegation's visit to Iran, speculation arises about the possibility of the two countries agreeing to exchange expertise and cooperate on their nuclear programs. This speculation is fueled by Iran's discussions about potentially changing its nuclear doctrine following its military attack on Israel. On April 18, 2024, Brigadier General Ahmad Haghtalab, commander of the IRGC unit responsible for safeguarding Iran's nuclear sites, hinted at the possibility of revising Iran's nuclear doctrine and policy if those facilities were attacked by Israel.

Western Stance

While acknowledging that the growing relations between North Korea and Iran stem from their belief in the importance of their alliance to confront American influence and Western pressure, and that this cooperation could become more impactful by aligning with international powers such as China and Russia, it is inconceivable that the West would stand idly by in the face of attempts by an adversarial alliance to challenge its power and influence in various regions around the world.

Indeed, over the years, the United States has taken measures to confront its adversaries. The AUKUS alliance between the United States, Australia, and Britain was established in September 2021 to counter China's growing influence and deter North Korea's nuclear tests. Additionally, the West intensified its military and financial support for Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia, imposed further sanctions on Iran, and provided direct military support to Israel in its confrontations with Tehran.

In this context, it is expected that the rapprochement between Pyongyang and Tehran will cast a shadow on Iran's relations with the West, adding more obstacles to the settlement of their disputes, especially regarding the nuclear issue, which has been significantly stalled amidst reports of Iran supporting Russia with drones during its war with Ukraine. This rapprochement may also lead to the deterioration of understandings reached between Iran and the United States on other issues in recent times.