South Korea’s Park rains on Kim Jong Un’s coronation parade

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DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

Kim Jong-Un celebrates his “coronation” in Pyongyang Friday while forgetting about one unpleasant reality that deepens North Korea’s isolation in an already hostile world.

He presides over North Korea’s biggest-ever party, the Seventh Workers’ Party Congress, while Iran, his longtime partner in nuclear crime, vastly improves its ties with South Korea ― so much so that we have to believe Iran won’t be cooperating quite so much with North Korea as it has been for years on nukes and missiles.

While South Koreans, and everyone else, worry about North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, President Park Geun-Hye has returned from Iran with a phalanx of ministers, chaebol chieftains and other business types. They’ve spent much of the week in Tehran striking deals that should definitely convince Iran’s top leaders that further collaboration with their North Korean friends is really not a good idea.

Delegates to the Korean People's Army’s party conference applaud as one following Kim Jong Un’s nomination as a delegates to the 7th Party Congress. / Rodong Sinmun
Delegates to the Korean People’s Army’s party conference applaud as one following Kim Jong Un’s nomination as a delegates to the 7th Party Congress. / Rodong Sinmun

That figures considering Iran’s potential as both a growing market for South Korean exports and a major source of the oil needed to fuel the South’s massive industry. Might South Korean companies also begin producing electronics products and assembling cars in Iran? Direct investment and broadening trade plus development of Iran’s infrastructure were all on the agenda during Park’s visit.

Related: Iran says oil exports to South Korea up fourfold since January, May 3

For sure, Park’s mission to Tehran would not have happened before the U.S. and others forged the agreement under which they’ve lifted sanctions so long as Iran swears it won’t be fabricating warheads on the basis of all it’s doing to produce nuclear power.

For Kim Jong-Un, the bad news has to be that maybe Iranian and North Korean scientists, engineers and technicians won’t be working together so closely on North Korea’s nuclear program, which is all about testing nuclear warheads, not nuclear energy.

Teams of Iranians have been reported in North Korea during all its nuclear tests at the site near the village of Punggye-ri in the mountainous northeast, and they’ve also worked with North Korea on missile tests, notably from sites near the northeast and northwest coasts.

North Korea and Iran may still be cooperating, but the level of interaction is believed to have gone down considerably while Iran warms up to much more profitable opportunities doing business not only with South Korea but also with Japan and a range of other partners.

Indeed, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also be making a pilgrimage to Tehran. He too will be on a quest for expanding a promising market for Japanese exports and developing another source of much-needed oil with a country whose 80 million people will obviously be far better off increasing business with both South Korea and Japan than with dickering with impoverished North Korea.

Park struck the right note with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a half-hour get-together in which she managed, said her senior secretary foreign affairs, to “cement support inside Iran for the development of bilateral friendly cooperative ties.”

If that assessment sounds politely vague, it represents a reversal from the days when South Korea had to toe the American line and forego overly close relations with this most lucrative Middle Eastern market.

Nobody dealing with Iran can forget that President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union Address included Iran in an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. Iraq lost its place in the axis after U.S. forces invaded the next year, got rid of the dictator Saddam Hussein and installed a government in Baghdad to its liking at the time. Iran and North Korea, however, did seem to have formed a relationship that lived up to Bush’s assessment.

The basis for that relationship was their collaboration ― whether for weapons or energy ― on highly enriched uranium. Iran and North Korea got the know how from A.Q. Khan, “father” of the Pakistan atomic bomb, who profited immensely from his dealings with both of them until finally being put on trial, found guilty and confined to his lavish estate near Islamabad.

Korea and Iran were exchanging technology ― and possibly materiel too ― in their HEU programs. Revelations of North Korea’s HEU program resulted later in 2002 in the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which the North had shut down the five-megawatt reactor under which it had been making warheads with plutonium, not HEU.

Now the question is whether North Korea will still be exporting Scud and Rodong missiles to Iran, which had been a steady market along with other Middle Eastern countries, including Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Burdened by UN sanctions imposed after its fourth nuclear test in January and the launch of a satellite in February, North Korea may well have lost that lucrative source of badly needed funds.

Certainly Iran will be far less enthusiastic about North Korea’s programs than before, now that both President Park and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani have agreed, yes indeed, nuclear weapons are bad. Park of course urged Iran not to “cooperate” with North Korea on nukes while Rouhani said he too opposed their “development.”

How much do all these nice words mean? They may not stop North Korea from going through with a fifth nuclear test ― and more missile tests too ― but they have to have an inhibiting effect on Iran-North Korea cooperation ― and destruction of that “axis” for which Bush was widely reviled for daring to mention more than 14 years ago.

Donald Kirk has been covering the conflict of forces on the Korean Peninsula for decades. He’s at [email protected].