News has surfaced that Iran has invited Kim Jong-Il to Tehran in order to ‘to further economic ties’. The invitation comes amid a flurry of recent diplomatic contact between the two states. Two weeks ago, an Iranian delegation led by Vice-Minister Mohammad Ali Fathollahi met with Kim Yong Nam, de facto head of the North Korean state, to hold talks regarding ‘bilateral political, economic and cultural relations’ and ‘international and regional issues’. Last week Iran’s ‘Press TV’ subsequently reported that Kim Yong Nam will visit Iran this summer to launch a ‘scientific and cultural exchange program’ between the two countries.
Even if suggestions that Kim Jong-Il has an aversion to flight are true (thus rendering the idea of him visiting Tehran unfeasible), that the invitation was sent is in and of itself significant. Indeed, it marks the greatest diplomatic contact between the two countries since their recognition of one another diplomatically in 1979. Given their shared history of missile collaboration, however, these closer ties raise some disconcerting questions…
Regarding economic relations, Iran’s Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh said in 2007, that ‘Both nations can cooperate in the fields of exploration, production and other fields of the energy sector’. It is well known that Pyongyang has had difficulties obtaining crude oil for many years, and that Tehran lacks enough refined petroleum to meet domestic demand. As such, Hammeneh summarized his Iranian-Korean proposal as ‘North Korea [getting] oil from Iran and [providing] Iran with a surplus of its own refined petrol’. However, a closer look reveals that this concept doesn’t quite add up.
According to research released by Choi Su Young just three months after Hamaneh’s statement, North Korea was at the time importing its ‘entire amount of petroleum for transportation and production’. The CIA World Factbook 2010 states today that this situation remains unchanged, with North Korea only importing – not exporting – petroleum. Indeed, so reliant has the DPRK’s been on importing petroleum that it remains highly unlikely that Pyongyang has ever had a surplus of petroleum to export. Thus, the notion that North Korea might import extra heavy oil from Iran to refine it into petroleum for export back to the Iranian market seems far fetched, especially due to the extreme distances and costs involved. So if North Korea is getting oil from Iran, what might Pyongyang be getting in return?
Well, history shows that in the 1980s and early 1990s Iran got arms in return. Early in its war with Iraq, Tehran bartered with North Korea to obtain conventional Soviet technology in exchange for crude oil. Similarly, Iran used its oil in 1993 to invest in the research and development of North Korea’s new No-Dong missile, which helped greatly in the establishment of an indigenous Iranian missile production infrastructure.
Recent reports suggest that Iran may be continuing to purchase arms from North Korea – although with what intensity is unclear. An article from 2007 stated that Iran may have received four mini submarines from North Korea. In August 2009, the UAE intercepted a ship carrying DPRK-manufactured munitions bound for Iran. And just days ago, Shimon Peres stated that North Korean entities were continuing to supply weapons to both Iran and its affiliates, although admittedly without any evidence.
Whether Iran is still purchasing missile technology from the DPRK today seems less likely, due to the more advanced state of the Iranian missile / space program. That said, there does appear to still be some evidence detailing scientific cooperation in this area, with Iranian nationals allegedly dispatched to North Korea to assist in last April’s attempted satellite launch. The Department of Defense’s April 2010 report on Iran’s military power states that “In developing and expanding its missile program, Iran has received assistance from North Korea and China,” but it does not elaborate on what form this assistance has taken or when it occurred.
In the nuclear domain it is interesting to note the sympathetic regard Iran and North Korea have for each other’s respective programs. Following North Korea’s 2006 test Iran targeted the totality of its criticism at the U.S (for provoking it). Likewise, following Pyongyang’s 2009 test, Tehran simply denied that it had been involved – it did not criticize North Korea. For its part, North Korea’s ambassador to Tehran, Kim Chon Ryong, reportedly has expressed North Korea’s support for Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology. How far cooperation in the nuclear domain goes or will go beyond this mutual deference is unclear.
Overall, it is evident that Iran and North Korea are forging closer and closer ties – a worrisome development. And further sanctions would likely ensure that these ties continue to flourish.