The surprising news that President Trump is planning to meet Kim Jong Un has brought North Korea’s nuclear capability and military ambitions sharply into focus. The prospect of a meeting between two adversaries, who so recently were mired in trading insults at each other, is a media dream. As such, the speculation is gathering pace, with some outlets such as CNN suggesting representatives of the two governments have already met in Finland, while the Washington Post and others say plans to coordinate a summit are in disarray.
Whatever the true state of affairs, many sections of the media have made the logical comparison between possible US-North Korea talks and the process which brought about the nuclear agreement with Iran. The likes of New York Times have pondered how Trump embracing the idea of dialogue with North Korea squares with his hostility towards the JCPOA.
In doing so, they are treating the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran as entirely unconnected. To read such analyses, you could be mistaken for thinking that their respective nuclear and indeed wider military development, which has taken place almost in tandem over recent decades, were a mere coincidence.
It would be easy to reach the same conclusion from media reports over the recent high-profile changes in the Trump Administration. Reuters, the Guardian and NPR are among those who have wondered out loud how replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as US Secretary of State will impact Washington’s stance on varied issues, including North Korea and Iran.
All of which overlooks a vital piece of the puzzle, masking an important truth. The reality is, that in all likelihood Iran and North Korea have a strong history of military cooperation. By definition, such ties are usually secretive and are hard to verify. However, as Ilan Berman suitably noted recently in USA Today, “Pyongyang has long served as an important strategic partner for Tehran’s clerical regime.”
Reports suggest that Iran has historically sent delegations to observe illicit North Korean missile tests and that the two countries have widely shared missile technology. In 2006, Iran publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had purchased missiles from North Korea during the 1980s. And as if to confirm the longevity of the relationship, in 2012 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei told North Korean officials that they have “common enemies” and should “march towards great goals” together.
On the face of things, Iran and North Korea may have little in common – One a religious theocracy, the other a secular Marxist regime. Yet scratch beneath the surface and there is a common enthusiasm which points towards collaboration over nuclear proliferation and long-range missile development. Both countries have destabilised their regions for too long. And so, in the current media furore, it is crucial that the discussion does not overlook the dangerous common ambitions of Tehran and Pyongyang. At the end of the day, the belligerence of one is a reflection of the other. Moreover, with nuclear North Korea desperate for a financial boost due to sanctions, and atomically-ambitious Iran benefiting economically from the JCPOA, there is reason to worry.