‘Alarming’: North Korea sends delegation to Iran amid suspicions of greater military cooperation

“This move is in step with North Korea’s efforts to attract Iran to what it calls an anti-imperialist alliance against the United States,” Political Science Professor Park Won-gon of Ewha Womans University told This Week in Asia.

“Both of the two countries are under international sanctions, but they have things to exchange for mutual benefits. For example, Iran can give the North its much-needed crude oil in return for the North’s military know-how,” he said.

While under international sanctions for their weapons programmes, Pyongyang and Tehran have maintained friendly relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1973.

“North Korea welcomes the emergence of a new Cold War” that allows it to break out of international isolation and align itself more closely to Russia and China as South Korea bolsters its alliance with the US and strengthens security cooperation with Japan, according to Park.

In Ukraine, Russia gifts North Korea ‘battlefield laboratory’ for missile tests

North Korea and Iran have long been suspected of cooperating in ballistic missile technology.

A 2019 report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency showed Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missiles were developed based on North Korea’s midrange Rodong missiles.

Pyongyang and Tehran reportedly provide Russia with weapons to support the war against Ukraine.

The North had shipped about 7,000 containers filled with munitions and other military equipment to Russia since last year to help Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine, South Korea’s defence minister Shin Won-sik said last month.

Since the start of 2022, North Korea has used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a distraction to ramp up its weapons tests and has also aligned with Moscow over the conflict in line with its efforts to break out of diplomatic isolation and join a united front against the US.

A drone view of the apparent remains of a ballistic missile in the desert following a massive missile and drone attack by Iran on Israel, near the southern Israeli city of Arad on April 24. Photo: Reuters

Iran also allegedly provided Russia with drones for the war.

Following Iran’s recent launch of more than 300 drones and missiles towards Israel, speculation has arisen that North Korean parts or military technology could have been used for Iran’s missile salvo against Israel, citing close military cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran, according to Yonhap news agency.

In 2006, the chief commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards publicly acknowledged that his country had obtained Scud-B and Scud-C missiles from North Korea during the war, but no longer needed Pyongyang’s help.

The Khorramshahr missile that Iran has developed is believed to be technically linked to North Korea’s Musudan missiles, according to Yonhap.

Lee Il-woo, an analyst at the think tank Korea Defence Network, said the rare trip to Iran raised concerns that Tehran might be seeking the North’s help in arming itself with nuclear weapons before it attempted to escalate confrontations with Israel and the US.

“The timing of this visit is rather alarming,” Lee told This Week in Asia, noting that Tehran last week warned Israel it would review its formal ban on nuclear weapons if atomic facilities for civilian purposes were attacked.

Russia used North Korean missiles for Ukraine attacks, US says

South Korea’s spy agency last week issued a rare warning about cooperation between Iran and North Korea, saying there was a possibility Pyongyang could have helped Iran in its attack on Israel. Seoul previously said North Korean weapons had been used by Hamas against Israel as the war in Gaza dragged on.

But Ewha Womans University’s Park said the North would not take such an “adventurous” path of nuclear proliferation to Iran and risk severe military retaliations by the US and Israel.

The US has long accused Iran and North Korea of military cooperation in the missile and nuclear fields that ran from the 1980s and into the first decade of the 2000s. It had tapered off in recent years due to sanctions and the development of domestic weapons production in both countries.

Washington has charged the two with sanctions violations in sending arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine. During a visit to South Korea earlier this month, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in return for the arms, Moscow was offering support that aided the weapons programmes of both North Korea and Iran.
Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, during an event in Pyongyang in August 2022. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP
In a separate development, Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong-un, on Wednesday lambasted recent US-South Korea joint military drills as “nuclear war” exercises, vowing to build up its military power.

Her statement came amid a two-week joint annual military exercise by the US and South Korea.

Kim said a series of exercises by the US military in the region this year, starting with live-fire drills conducted with the “South Korean puppet military gangsters”, were driving the regional security environment to a dangerous level.

“We will continue to build overwhelming and the most powerful military power to safeguard our sovereignty, security and regional peace,” the KCNA quoted her as saying.

The US and South Korea have been conducting a series of military exercises with greater scale and intensity in recent months, including a two-week-long air force drill mobilising 100 aircraft, to cope with the nuclear-armed North.

A photo released by KCNA on April 23 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (centre) during a missile drill at an undisclosed location. Photo: KCNA/KNS/dpa

Kim Jong-un supervised salvo launches of the North’s “super-large” multiple rocket launchers that simulated a nuclear counter-attack against enemy targets, KCNA said on Tuesday.

The North claims some of these systems, including the 600mm multiple rocket launchers that were tested on Monday, are capable of delivering tactical nuclear warheads.

According to Political Science Professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies, Pyongyang is “likely to stage a massive nuclear deterrence exercise in August” when Washington and Seoul carry out an annual military drill aimed at bolstering nuclear war capabilities on the Korean peninsula.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg

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