Buying Compliance: The South Korean Presidential Visit to Iran

South Korea’s president recently visited Iran and presented it with a trade-off: realise the full potential of trade and investment with a major Asian economy or maintain illicit military links to North Korea. Iran’s response, while progressive, may have fallen short of her hopes. 

In early May, South Korean President Park Geun-hye embarked on a historic trip to Iran – the first Korean president and female leader of a non-Muslim state to do so. Accompanied by representatives of more than 225 South Korean firms interested in business opportunities in Iran following the recent lifting of sanctions, Park’s visit was presented as a major opportunity to improve bilateral economic engagement. Her visit, however, had another objective: convince Iran to co-operate by complying with UN sanctions against North Korea as part of the broader effort to address the North Korean nuclear issue, despite the decades of military co-operation between Tehran and Pyongyang.

Iranian–North Korean Military Ties

South Korea’s top foreign policy priority remains the improvement of security on the Korean Peninsula, to which North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programmes presents a serious obstacle. To slow those programmes and place pressure on Pyongyang in the hope of changing the country’s cost-benefit calculations of these initiatives, Seoul continues to seek the support of foreign capitals. To date Iran has refused to oblige. In fact, Iran has historically been one of North Korea’s closest military partners. In particular, since the 1980s the two countries have co-operated in the area of ballistic and cruise missile development – collaboration that appears to be continuing. In January 2016 the US Treasury sanctioned Iranian individuals linked to the country’s Ministry of Defense for assisting North Korea in the development of a new rocket booster.

Park’s visit is therefore carefully timed. Revelations of North Korean–Iranian missile-related collaboration come in the midst of a flurry of North Korean nuclear and missile activity; in the first few months of 2016, North Korea has conducted a fourth underground nuclear test and multiple missile tests, including from a submarine. It is therefore not surprising that President Park sought to secure a commitment from Tehran to cease any involvement in these prohibited programmes.

Dangling Economic Carrots

In its attempts to persuade foreign capitals to change their approach, South Korea has drawn on a familiar tactic: subtly reminding North Korea’s partners that positive relations with Seoul can be far more lucrative than those with Pyongyang, and that the two are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive. South Korean officials have in the past painted a similar picture for numerous countries in Africa, for example.

No time could be better to attempt this approach with Tehran. With a new nuclear deal now in force and many sanctions against Iran having been formally lifted, Tehran is eager to cultivate economic relations far and wide with a view to restoring its place in the international economy. South Korea is clearly aware of this. In recent months, South Korea’s ambassador to Iran met with the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to call for increased mutual economic ties. A South Korean delegation headed by the deputy minister of trade, industry and energy followed in order to explore opportunities for infrastructure investment, trade and nuclear activities. President Park’s visit was the culmination of some of these efforts, with South Korean companies signing 66 memoranda of understanding with Iranian counterparts, worth just over $37.1 billion.

Preliminary Results

For her efforts, Iran did offer a more progressive statement on the North Korean issue. At a joint press conference, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that nuclear weapons should be removed from the Korean Peninsula as Iran was ‘in principle, opposed to any nuclear development’. Prominent South Korean media outlets (such as the Korea Times and the Yonhap News Agency) hailed Rouhani’s comments as a full-throated condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

In the short term Rouhani’s words appear to have given Park sufficient confidence and justification to encourage initial bilateral economic progress with Iran. However, on their own they will not be satisfactory to her in the long term. Iran’s qualification of its objection to nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula by using the words ‘in principle’ is curious. Its failure to mention North Korea’s ballistic missile pursuits, which Iran and North Korea are believed to have co-operated in to mutual benefit, is more concerning. It is possible that Iran has no intention of cutting such military projects with Pyongyang, but instead used vague statements to increase Seoul’s confidence in exchange for a much desired increase in the country’s access to lucrative Asian markets. For now, Rouhani’s statement provides a starting point for conversations on North Korea’s prohibited activities and active economic engagement could create the political space to keep this discussion open. As South Korea lacks other forms of leverage over Iranian decision-makers, however, that discussion could involve a sizeable price tag.


Cristina Varriale

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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