August 1, 2007｜Korean Peninsula
Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs
At present, it is well known that the countries presenting a problem for the international community, through their nuclear programs, are the DPRK and Iran. Regarding relations between these two countries, however, speculation is rife and nothing is known. Some say that the DPRK is passing nuclear technology to Iran, but in actuality to what degree the DPRK and Iran are cooperating in nuclear technology is something unknown.
That there was, however, a period in the past where military relations were strong between the DPRK and Iran is probably a certainty. That was the period of the Iran–Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. Up to that time the DPRK had sent forces to a large number of countries, and it is thought that it dispatched troops to support Iran in the Iran–Iraq War. As no documents have come out of the DPRK and Iran the details are not known, but from the time of the war the dispatch of troops to Iran by the DPRK has been reported by the ROK amongst others. At that time, from the fact of the energetic toings and froings of delegations from the two nations, this is fully a possibility.
There may be suspicion as to whether the DPRK might have dispatched troops to the Iraqi side as well. There are actually people who are asking that question. It is highly unlikely, however. A little known fact is that in 1980, when the Iran–Iraq War broke out, the DPRK and Iraq actually broke off diplomatic relations. Today, too, they don’t have diplomatic relations. This is probably related to the DPRK being an ally of Iran in the Iran–Iraq War.
Concerning the dispatch of troops, an article by the eminent ROK journalist Cho Gab-Je in the November 2006 “Monthly Chosun” is, at the time of writing, the most specific. This had the details from an interview with a defector from the DPRK. The defector went to Iran in 1986, and was a scientist who, for approximately six months, participated in the construction of missile bases. According to the article, those dispatched were in military advisory groups, made up of army and navy officers, and there were no air force officers and ordinary soldiers there. In terms of numbers, there were several thousand people. Even though they were military advisory groups, the dispatched officers were said to have taken part in combat as company or battalion commanders. There were also DPRK officers who died from Iraqi poison gas attacks. The number of dead for the DPRK military dispatched to Iran reached into the hundreds.
From the details the defector gave, there is also a hint as to why the DPRK sent troops to Iran: There is a close connection to weapons sales. In Iran, aside from the regular army, there exists the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (the Iranian Revolutionary Guards). It was set up immediately after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. When war broke out, the need to arm it increased, but there were few nations who would sell weapons to Iran. One of the nations that would sell them was the DPRK. Additionally, as DPRK weapons were easy to use and low-priced, the defector said Iran purchased great quantities. According to the defector, once they had sold them the weapons, they also had to instruct the Revolutionary Guards in their handling, and therefore the DPRK personnel naturally went to the battlefield. This basically means that the DPRK troops dispatched for the purpose of weapons training can be considered to have been for the battlefield.
The DPRK reportedly sold all kinds of weapons to Iran. Among them were also ballistic missiles. The defector has told of being engaged in missile-base construction in Iran. Moreover, the DPRK has not only exported missiles to Iran, but has also set up missile-production plants. Naturally these details cannot be verified as correct. If, for one moment however, one were to take them as correct, then the Iran deployment by the DPRK could be considered not support for an allied country, but an extension of its military business centered on sales of weapons.
Although the defector, in the Monthly Chosun article, had insisted that the DPRK and Iran have a blood-brother relationship, what is it really? From the circumstances at the time of the troop dispatch, it didn’t resemble an alliance, but it could be thought that, as far as the DPRK was concerned, Iran was nothing more than a client for its military business. Moreover, the current coming and going of delegations between the DPRK and Iran is dramatically less compared to that time. Not to mention that we don’t know if military business relations similar to those back then are continuing today between the DPRK and Iran. Current relations between the DPRK and Iran are probably weaker than people think.