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Judgment Day for Nuclear Diplomacy in North Korea and Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) shakes hands with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong (L) during a meeting in Tehran on September 16, 2014. (Getty Images)

A looming deadline over Tehran’s nuclear deal and a hoped-for summit between North Korea and the U.S. provoke questions of linkage between the two.

by Joseph Braude

Two landmark moments in the history of nuclear proliferation appear poised to occur this coming May. On May 12, U.S. President Donald Trump is required to either sign a new 120-day waiver on Iranian sanctions — as per expectations arising from the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA) — or reimpose the sanctions, effectively ending the deal. May is also the month in which Trump has said he will negotiate with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un over his country’s nuclear disarmament, following a surprise invitation by the latter to meet face-to-face.

For many observers, there is a relationship between the two big moments. Some see a long, murky history of collusion between Tehran and Pyongyang to reinforce one another’s nuclear ambitions. Others draw a range of inferences between the Iran deal and an envisioned North Korean equivalent — and argue that whatever choices Trump makes in one arena will effect the other.

Majalla has accordingly distilled the facts that fuel suspicions of Iranian-North Korean nuclear collusion, as well as the main arguments analysts have been making about a “linkage” in the two states’ nuclear diplomacy.


Westerners have been drawing a rhetorical connection between the weapons programs of North Korea and Iran at least as far as 2002, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush memorably labeled the two countries, together with Iraq, as part of an “axis of evil” — specifically referencing their nuclear ambitions. More recently, analysts have debated whether and to what extent Pyongyang and Tehran may actually have facilitated each other’s nuclear projects.

In a November 2017 “Policy Analysis,” Jay Solomon of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that American intelligence agencies had “spotted Iranian defense officials in Pyongyang,” and that senior North Korean official Kim Yong-nam had visited Tehran to attend the inauguration of President Rouhani. Five years earlier, in 2012, the same official had also traveled to Tehran to sign a scientific cooperation agreement between the two countries. In light of prior, documented nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and the Assad regime in Syria, the 2012 Iranian-North Korean agreement triggered special concerns in Washington. Solomon added that American and South Korean intelligence went on to track the movement of finance and defense industry figures between the two countries, as well as Iranian assistance with the construction of North Korean rocket boosters for ballistic missiles. Iranian opposition figures claim that Iranian officials have also visited the “hermit kingdom” to observe nuclear weapons tests, while Iran-backed Houthi rebels are known to have received weapons from Pyongyang. And ten years after Israel’s 2007 bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor, which North Korea helped construct, two North Korean shipments bound for the government agency in charge of Syria’s chemical weapons were intercepted, according to a confidential UN report on North Korean sanctions violations. Thus in addition to a history of state-to-state engagement over nuclear matters, North Korea has provided material support to some of Iran’s dearest proxies.

Small wonder that the theory of Iranian-North Korean nuclear cooperation has also found its way into American popular culture — most prominently, via the hit cloak-and-dagger TV series Homeland. Season six last year revolved around the question of whether Iran was betraying its nuclear deal with the West by building a “parallel nuclear program” in North Korea. (In the story, allegations to that effect turned out to be untrue.)

But suggestions of cooperation notwithstanding, Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, cast doubt on theories of nuclear collusion in a widely read article last month. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he assessed much of the evidence for collusion as stemming from reports in ideologically infused American  media outlets, mostly dating back to 2014 and 2015. During that period, he argued, opponents of the Iranian nuclear deal were fighting an information campaign against the Obama Administration, aiming to sway public opinion to their side. Walsh acknowledged that the two countries have a history of military cooperation dating back to the Iran-Iraq war, in which Pyongyang provided Iran with ballistic missiles to use against Saddam Hussein. He also allowed for the significance of the fact that both Pyongyang and Tehran had provided illicit assistance to the network of Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan, and noted that Pyongyang had helped Syria build its nuclear reactor. Nonetheless, he said, “neither the US intelligence community, nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor the UN Panel of Experts set up to support sanctions against North Korea has ever made such a claim [of nuclear-related trade or cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang].”

Amid this debate, it is safe to assume that Western governments will be watching for evidence of North Korean-Iranian collusion in coming months — as will nongovernment observers skeptical of both powers’ intentions in negotiating with Europe and the United States.

An activist with a mask of Kim Jong-un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and supreme leader of North Korea (L), and another with a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump, march with a model of a nuclear rocket during a demonstration against nuclear weapons on November 18, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Getty Images)


Whatever the extent of technical cooperation between the two powers, Western observers tend to believe that the governments of North Korea and Iran have keenly watched each others’ international nuclear negotiations in order to glean lessons for themselves. It is possible that Westerners overestimate the importance Tehran and Pyongyang place on such comparisons. But in any case, the Western belief that the two countries engage in this form of inferential reasoning now animates an intensive policy discussion in the United States.

As David Sanger wrote in the New York Times on March 11, “[North Korea] will be watching especially closely in May, when Mr. Trump will face another deadline on deciding whether to abandon the Iran deal, which he has called a ‘disaster.’” In Sanger’s estimation, “[I]f Mr. Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, Mr. Kim may well wonder why he should negotiate with the United States if a subsequent president can simply pull the plug on any agreement.” Meanwhile, just as North Korea takes cues from Iran, Iran looks to North Korea, argues Ryan Costello of the pro-JCPOA National Iranian American Council: If Trump nixes the Iranian nuclear deal, Costello opined last week, Iran will undoubtedly “follow North Korea’s path and obtain … nuclear weapons.”

On the other hand, voices more critical of the JCPOA argue that the deal’s indulgence of Iranian nuclear aspirations is liable to raise the North Korean leader’s expectations in any negotiation with Trump. According to this logic, Trump must either substantially renegotiate or abrogate the Iran deal in order to enter North Korean negotiations with a strong hand. For example, on March 12, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Tweeted, “If Trump agrees to a fake fix to JCPOA, Kim Jong-un will know he can play this president like his regime played three others. Real fix to JCPOA by May 12 increases U.S. leverage against [North Korea]. No deal on both Iran & DPRK better than a fake deal.” Dubowitz’s colleague, FDD Senior Advisor Richard Goldberg, added in a similar vein, “If Iran can have nuclear-capable missiles to wipe Israel or KSA off the map, why would Kim Jong-un settle for less than nuclear-capable missiles that can wipe out Japan or South Korea? If inspectors can’t get into Iranian military sites, why would Kim let inspectors into his?”

If there is a common thread running through the lion’s share of analyses of international affairs, it is a tendency to project one’s own pattern of reasoning onto the minds of others. In truth, few if any Westerners know to what extent or how the minutiae of Iranian nuclear diplomacy inform the decision-making of Kim Jong-Un. The strategic calculations of Iran’s Supreme Leader, like those of his counterpart in Pyongyang, are also opaque. Westerners can be confident, however, that both rogue states scour democratic media for insights into the strategic thinking of the United States and its European allies.

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Joseph Braude
Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets@josephbraude.

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