North Korea launches a short-range missile, July 26, 2019. Photo Credit: BBC
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) have established a relationship that serves both of their security strategies. Their cooperation is a functional means to withstand their mutual economic isolation as well as a threatening move against their common adversary, the United States. Despite the efforts of the United States and its multilateral allies, the robust sanctions regimes against the DPRK and Iran have not dammed the flow of illicit trade between the two states. Instead, it is perhaps because of the trade restrictions that Iran and North Korea have turned to one another for support; their limited options and similar security goals make these designated rogue states convenient allies. Both countries have developed sophisticated underground trade networks to work around the international sanctions regimes placed on state and private industries. The strengthening relationship between the DPRK and Iran reveals a dangerous regional strategy that could risk US assets in the Middle East and Asia.
The most threatening aspect of North Korea-Iran relations is their active arms trade. North Korea has a legacy of arms exports to countries and non-state actors embroiled in conflict. In exchange for foreign currency reserves, the DPRK has supplied weapons systems to Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Vietnam, among others. North Korea first began exporting military hardware to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and has since been instrumental in the construction of Iran’s defense industry infrastructure. North Korea provided valuable training, production materials, and entire weapons systems in exchange for Iranian oil exports.
The danger the North Korea-Iran arms trade poses to US interests is perhaps best illustrated by the Iranian ballistic missile program. All of Iran’s liquid-fuel short-range and medium-range missiles are derived from North Korean imports. Thanks to the DPRK’s assistance, Iran is now capable of reaching all its regional strategic targets including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Today, the two states are cooperating on a liquid-fuel rocket engine suited for long-range missiles such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite launch vehicles. In addition, advancements in Iran’s defense program have yielded high-tech drones, cruises missiles, and conventional artillery that would fill gaps in North Korea’s military arsenal. As both countries continue to develop their own independent defense industries, cooperation between them becomes more and more strategically valuable and increasingly dangerous to their adversaries.
This cooperation is especially relevant for the imminent future because of the recent lift of the arms embargo on Iran, which occurred on October 18, 2020. The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) endorsement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 included a provision requiring Iran to obtain UNSC approval for any conventional arms imports or exports. Given Iran’s compliance with the rest of the agreement, that requirement would end five years after the JCPOA’s adoption. Now that day has come and gone, and Iran’s arms market is officially open for business. Experts predict that Iran will take advantage of its newfound access to the global defense industry to enhance its current arsenal with a few strategic purchases and to finance the development of its security infrastructure by selling its produced capabilities. The arms embargo lift only includes conventional weapons systems, so ballistic missile trade and high-risk military capabilities remain under UN sanctions, but conventional imports and exports like material hardware, cutting-edge technology in software programming, or dual-use components to assist manufacturing could significantly enhance Iran’s production capacity. These increased Iranian capabilities will likely be transferred to North Korea furthering their strategic partnership.
Another dimension of the regional threat posed by Iran-North Korea cooperation is the expanding role of China. The Communist Party of China (CCP) has already begun to use this new arms market for its own benefit by investing in Iranian and North Korean infrastructure in exchange for increased access to both oil and weapons manufacturing. Some analysts think China is strengthening the relationship between North Korea and Iran both to ease its own burden of supplying oil to North Korea and to grow the Iranian threat to the United States. If North Korea and Iran can support each other and increase their respective power projection capabilities, China might have more room to maneuver in its own security strategy opposite the United States. Additionally, China will have a competitive advantage over oil and arms imports from the Middle East while softening the blow of sanctions against the DPRK and Iran. The CCP’s trading with Iran and North Korea directly conflicts with US economic strategy and decreases the leverage multilateral sanctions hold over adversary states.
The active trade relationship between the DPRK and Iran warrants a close watch for the future especially in the defense industry. Rapid technological developments with minimal established oversight means that any advancements for either state could greatly transform the capabilities of both. Despite the rigorous sanctions placed on both states, North Korea and Iran have each developed quite sophisticated weapons arsenals that threaten their regional adversaries and the United States. The United States has unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iran, but given Tehran’s advanced illicit trade network and its prioritization of its security strategy, Iran will probably continue to persevere in its military enhancement. Similarly, sanctions have not successfully stopped North Korea from developing nuclear capabilities. China’s involvement could expedite the consequences of the DPRK-Iran partnership by strengthening the trade infrastructure that connects them. As long as North Korea and Iran can use each other to advance their respective security strategies, the threats they pose to the United States and its allies will grow in tandem.
 Peter Brookes and Audrey Pederson, “The Iran-North Korea Axis Rides On,” The Daily Signal, October 7, 2020, https://www.dailysignal.com/2020/10/07/the-iran-north-korea-axis-rides-on/.
 Mark Episkopos, “North Korea Has Made Billions of Dollars Selling Weapons Around the World,” National Interest, August 8, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/korea-watch/north-korea-has-made-billions-dollars-selling-weapons-around-world-166542.
 Simon Watkins, “Iran to Import North Korean Missiles in 25-Year Military Deal with China,” OilPrice.com, October 19, 2020, https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Iran-To-Import-North-Korean-missiles-In-25-Year-Military-Deal-With-China.html.
 “Iran’s Missile Program: Past and Present,” Iran Watch June 29, 2020, https://www.iranwatch.org/our-publications/weapon-program-background-report/history-irans-ballistic-missile-program#Current%20Ballistic%20Missile%20Capabilities.
 Bruce Bechtol, “North Korea, China, and Iran: The Axis of Missiles?” National Interest, October 25, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/korea-watch/north-korea-china-and-iran-axis-missiles-171367.
 Paul Iddon, “What Weapons Might Iran Export After The U.N. Arms Embargo Expires?” Forbes, September 9, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauliddon/2020/09/09/what-weapons-might-iran-export-after-the-un-arms-embargo-expires/?sh=243680573e93; Brooks and Pederson, “The Iran-North Korea Axis Rides On.”
 Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, July 23, 2020, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RS/RS20871.
 Michael Eisendstadt, “If the Arms Ban Ends: Implications for Iran’s Military Capabilities,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 23, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/if-the-arms-ban-ends-implications-for-irans-military-capabilities.
 Simon Watkins, “China Inks Military Deal with Iran Under Secretive 25-Year Plan,” OilPrice.com, July 6, 2020, https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/China-Inks-Military-Deal-With-Iran-Under-Secretive-25-Year-Plan.html.
 Watkins, “Iran To Import North Korean Missiles.”
 Katzman, “Iran Sanctions.”