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North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs: A misleading analogy? There are many similarities between t

“States like these [North Korea, Iran and Iraq], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

This phrase, from the 2002 State of the Union Address by George W. Bush, encapsulated the essence of the doctrine that the U.S. President had put at the center of his new national security strategy.

In that framework, the proliferation challenge and the threat from “rogue states” became the justification for the turn in the country’s foreign policy.

The assumption was that in order to avoid the perils posed by undeterred and irrational regimes eager to satisfy their nuclear ambitions a new approach, based on “preemption (rather than deterrence), counter-proliferation (rather non-proliferation), and military means (rather than diplomatic options)”, was needed.

Moreover, the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review listed North Korea and Iran among the states as potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons.


The new fears and discourses in the aftermath of the 9/11 enabled the Bush administration to “seek to reshape global politics and various societies around the world.”

This was confirmed by fact that what mattered most was neither the ability of

regimes to strike with WMDs nor their behavior but instead the type of regime armed (or

presumed armed) with said weapons.

After 2002, any hope of reconciliation collapsed

It was this American emphasis and strategy on regime change that, once again, worsened the threat perceptions of North Korea and Iran and led to the end to engagement and the cooperative mood of the last years of the Clinton administration; both in East Asia and in the Middle East.

The Perry process to cope with the North Korean nuclear issue had been followed at the end of 1990s by an improvement of relations between the U.S. administration and the moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who called for dialogue with the West and with Washington.

But after 2002 with the breakout of the second nuclear crisis in North Korea, the exit of the country from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the end of the Agreed Framework (AF) any hope of reconciliation collapsed . This ultimately allowed Pyongyang continue to develop its nuclear program.

Additionally, the revelation about two clandestine nuclear sites in Iran by an exiled Iranian resistance group meant that within a year the world realized that Tehran had built or was building everything it needed to produce enriched uranium. In March 2003 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began investigating Iran’s nuclear history.

The situation turned even worse in 2004 as the new parliament in Tehran filled with hardliners determined to continue their nuclear enrichment program and then, a year later, the new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the nuclear issue a pillar of his political project.

The hardline Presidency of Ahmadinejad saw Iran’s nuclear program sped up | Photo: Hossein Zohrevand


Despite the U.S. administration’s strong words against the Kim regime and the clerical one in Tehran some attempts were made in both scenarios to solve the crises through a “dual track strategy” of pressure and dialogue.

The Six-Party Talks (SPT, 2003) in East Asia, the EU-3 (UK, France, and Germany, 2003), the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany, 2005) plus the EU High Representative for Common and Security Policy’s negotiations with Tehran all represented such attempts. They resulted in the signing of the September 2005 Agreement with North Korea on the one hand, and the Tehran Declaration (2003) with the Paris Agreement (2004) on the other.

Beginning in 2006, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed several resolutions against North Korea and Iran in order to increase the pressure on them to suspend their nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.

Some attempts were made to solve the crises through a “dual track strategy” of pressure and dialogue

However, at the end of the decade no substantial progress had been made on either front. Nevertheless while the SPT stalled over verification issues in 2008 – and the U.S. has refused to talk to Pyongyang unless specific preconditions are met – the door of diplomacy was never closed to Tehran.

From 2010 onward, the U.S. and the European Union strengthened sanctions against Iran, adding unilateral measures that hit the country’s energy sector and isolated it from the international financial system.

Negotiations went more smoothly with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of the country and Obama abandoning the unrealistic request of zero enrichment.

On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that imposed restrictions on Iran’s stockpiles of uranium and its ability to enrich it so to prevent it from building any kind of nuclear bomb – ending the long-standing nuclear standoff.

Signed in July 2015, the JCPOA ended Iran’s standoff with the West | Photo: Dragan Tatic

Iran also accepted enhanced levels of IAEA monitoring. In return, Tehran can continue its research and development activities in a manner that does not violate the deal while at the same time benefiting from the removal of the multilayered nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the UNSC, the EU, and the U.S. as long as Iran implements its obligations.

The inclusion of a “snap back” procedure in the deal make sure the reinstating of sanctions will take place should Iran be caught cheating. After fifteen years, all the constraints on Iranian nuclear development will be lifted.

The door of diplomacy was never closed to Tehran


Since the JCPOA was signed, many have argued that the Iranian experience could offer lessons in persuading the Kim regime to also abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The crucial role played by sanctions in forcing Iran to compromise, many continue to say, should be viewed as a proof that such measures work.

However, this seems a rather superficial evaluation. These case studies differ for a number of reasons, ranging from the two countries’ political systems and internal dynamics, to the motivations behind their pursuance of nuclear programs and progress respective to that.

North Korea is already a de facto nuclear power. In spite of that, what is most important is that the Kim regime has made clear that its “nuclear program is not a plaything to be put on the negotiating table, as it is the essential means to protect its sovereignty and vital rights from the U.S. nuclear threat and hostile policy.”

Until policy advisors and makers in Washington understand this basic notion about North Korea, they will never succeed in their efforts towards denuclearization. Kim Jong Un has based his legitimacy on the parallel development of the nuclear program and economy under the Byungjin policy.

This kind of discourse has never been put forward by the Iranian leadership – that’s why it bargained the nuclear program away in favor of economic benefits.

North Korea is already a de facto nuclear power

For Tehran, alongside security calculations and the will to acquire influence in the region, the nuclear program was perceived as enforcing the right to decide what level of defensive capabilities the country could have as well as a means toward the scientific and technological advancement of the country.

Moreover, Obama gave concessions to Tehran that the U.S. has never granted Pyongyang: having official talks without preconditions and permitting the country to maintain its nuclear program without dismantling any of the existing centrifuges or facilities.


Two elements are central in looking at the Iranian system and how it differs from the DPRK: the intra-factional dynamics (Iran has political currents based on shifting alliances between important political figures, centers of power and key constituencies) and the peculiar role of the Supreme Leader, whose ultimate goal is the survival of the system.

A large part of the deal was possibly because of the consensus across the country’s elite on the issue.

Obama gave concessions to Tehran that the U.S. has never granted Pyongyang

One sub-faction of the “principalist” group, the “traditional conservatives” (in contrast to the hardline conservatives) sided with the reformist Rouhani on nuclear diplomacy, along with the Revolutionary Guards and, most importantly, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

All these actors perceived that the costs of opposing the deal were too high and that stopping it would jeopardize the existence of the system.

These convoluted and diffused power structures are not present in the North Korean system, nor do domestic opinion or popular pressure have any impact on the foreign policy calculus of the regime.

On the contrary, the repressive nature of the Kim regime and its capacity to impose costs on its population make North Korea is a difficult target for sanctions, as noted by Haggard and Noland.

These differences also explain why sanctions have worked in the Iranian case but not against the North Korean leadership, whose political support base (the party, the military, and the security apparatus) is largely unaffected by sanctions.


Iran and North Korea were the dominant focus of President Obama’s nonproliferation policy. Moreover, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2010 showed that U.S. officials believe Iran had acquired ballistic missile parts from North Korea.

The international community has known since 2002 that Pyongyang and Tehran have cooperated on missiles as the resemblance between Iran’s Shahab-3 and the DPRK’s Nodong missiles makes clear.

Diffuse power structures are not present in the North Korean system

There have been a lot of unconfirmed reports about missile and nuclear program collaboration between the two states, as well of Iranian missile experts stationed at a facility in North Korea near the Chinese border.

The DPRK and Iran are known to have collaborated on missile technology | Photo: the Shahab-3, Aria Mehr, Flickr Creative Commons

The truth is that it’s hard to know, precisely, what kind of cooperation is going on between the North Koreans and the Iranians.

What is certain, however, is that the two actors have a long-term partnership dating back to the 1980s, when an isolated Iran badly needed to acquire military hardware from Pyongyang in order to face Saddam Hussein during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. In turn, Kim Il Sung badly needed hard currency.

Iran has acquired ballistic missile parts from North Korea

In 1985, a joint cooperative missile development program was inaugurated, while during the 1990s North Korea’s arsenal was the inspiration behind most of Iran’s ballistic-missile capabilities.

The Islamic Republic has also relied on North Korean scientists for help with its nuclear program and Pyongyang is known to have assisted in fortifying a number of Iranian nuclear facilities against possible preemptive strikes.

It has also reportedly dispatched hundreds of nuclear experts to work with the Iranians as well as providing Tehran with key nuclear software.

The most recent significative development in cooperation is a Scientific Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed on the fringe of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Tehran in September 2012.

Both country’s official news agencies, KCNA and IRNA, reported that the agreement covered “cooperation in science, technology and education,” while Western sources reported that the parties also exchanged a secret two-page document that provides for the permanent stationing of an Iranian mission in North Korea.

The two enjoy close relations – North Korea opened a new embassy in Tehran in early August | Photo: KCNA

Since the 2015 nuclear deal, ballistic missile development has been the most consistent area of Tehran-Pyongyang technological cooperation.

After the signing, Khamenei declared that the two countries had “common enemies.” yet in 2014-2016 cooperation waned as Tehran went through the last steps in the negotiation with P5+1 and JCPOA.

President Rouhani, too, was focused on guiding his country on a different path aimed at economic development and the reintegration of the country into the international community.

Regardless, the two actors still work together and, since the 2015 nuclear deal, ballistic missile development has been the most consistent area of Tehran-Pyongyang technological cooperation.

Despite often being depicted as mere “marriage of convenience,” this cooperation is a more mutual exchange than a simply transactional one.

The similarities between the missiles tested by Pyongyang in the last few months and Iran’s technology suggests Tehran is contributing to North Korea’s nuclear buildup.

Moreover, the Islamic Republic has strategic interests in cooperating with the DPRK in this field: improved naval capabilities with sophisticated ballistic missiles enhance Tehran’s deterrent power toward the U.S., both in terms of creating high costs for a military confrontation with Washington and in Iran’s ability to threaten U.S. ships in the Straits of Hormuz.

Additionally should Iran obtain a 2500-mile strike range it’s capability to militarily threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. will increase considerably.

These considerations may be worth noting when looking at Tehran’s long standing goal to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East and at the current uncertainties about the future of the JCPOA, recently described by President Trump as “the worst deal ever.”

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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