The arrival of North Korea's foreign minister in Tehran just hours after Donald Trump had reinstated sanctions against Iran was “no coincidence”, analysts believe, and is designed to send the message that Pyongyang is reinforcing its alliances as denuclearisation talks with the US stall.
Ri Yong-ho held talks with Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, on Tuesday, the same day that economic sanctions went back into force against Tehran. The meeting was held at North Korea’s request, Iranian media reported, and the two officials used the two-day visit to express their “satisfaction” with existing bilateral relations and seek better ties in the future.
“The fact that they are meeting at all comes as no surprise, and of course the timing of these talks is no coincidence”, said Rah Jong-il, a former diplomat who previously served as South Korea’s ambassador to London and Tokyo.
The relationship between the two nations - described in January 2002 by President George W. Bush as two of the three states that made up the “axis of evil” - goes back to the Iran-Iraq war, when Pyongyang sided with Tehran and provided its forces with weapons. That subsequently grew into exchanges of increasingly more sophisticated weapons systems, including missiles, and nuclear technology, Mr Rah said.
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And with talks with the US apparently deadlocked, Pyongyang looks to be returning to its historical allies to underline that it still has friends and will not be bullied, Mr Rah added, pointing out that the North’s foreign minister has also recently visited China, Russia and Cuba.
“The North Koreans were quite optimistic after Mr Kim [Jong-un] met Mr Trump in Singapore because they believed that he would be manageable and that they would be able to get what they wanted from him”, Mr Rah told The Telegraph.
That included rewards for phased denuclearisation and the lifting of sanctions, although the US has since stiffened its position and is demanding that the North completes the abolition of its atomic arsenal before sanctions are removed.
“Now Mr Trump has put the sanctions back on Iran, the two countries find themselves in the same situation, so Mr Ri’s visit is likely to be an opportunity to coordinate on policies and emphasise their joint front against Washington”, Mr Rah said.
“It may also be an opportunity to exchange information on military hardware and technology,” he added.
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Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, agreed with that assessment, telling The Korea Herald that, “As North Korea does not hold many cards in negotiations with the US, it appears to be diversifying its diplomatic partners and strengthening its alli2ances with them to increase its leverage”.
The timing and content of Mr Ri’s visit to Tehran will not go overlooked in the US, however, and could serve to further stiffen Washington’s resolve to bring Mr Kim’s regime to heel. That, in turn, could provoke a backlash that negates any progress on the future of the Korean Peninsula made to date.
Yet Mr Rah believes that North Korea still sees Mr Trump as its best hope of being accepted as an equal by the international community and even, potentially, retainings its nuclear weapons.
“Mr Trump is the most favourable opponent they have faced in the White House”, he said. “They still believe they can make progress with him and even though Washington has been firmer recently, the North will be working out ways that they can manipulate him for their own purposes”.