Iran and the Two Koreas: A Peculiar Pattern of Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


Despite conventional assumptions, a different pattern of alliances and incompatible political ideologies, Iran has been among the few countries in the world that has maintained close and continuous relations simultaneously with both South and North Koreas, forging a surprising web of complex connections on the Korean Peninsula for some decades. This research argues that the peculiarity in Iran's interactions with the two Koreas can be attributed to a pragmatist approach that has strived to balance the dominant systemic factor and the secondary yet influential domestic variable. This is done in order to achieve the intended foreign policy goals according to each party's relative status and capabilities within the international system. To substantiate this argument, the study probes major developments in Tehran's bilateral relations with Seoul and Pyongyang, focusing particularly on five distinctive periods from the early steps to establish official ties before the 1970s to the past decade when the multi-faceted connections between the Iranians and Koreans reached an all time high. The research also briefly discusses the recent issue of Iran's sanctions and their implications for bilateral relations between the Persian Gulf country and the Republic of Korea.

Key Words: Iran, Korea, Middle East, East Asia, Persian Gulf, Korean Peninsula, Energy, Exports, Imports, Arms Sales, Economic Sanctions


Early history when the Iranians first encountered people from the Korean Peninsula dates back at least to the seventh century during the last decades of the Sassanid Persia and the rule of the Shilla dynasty in the two respective regions. The initial contact took place mainly through formal trade and private business activities along the Silk Road, with China serving as a bridge between them.1 A couple of centuries later, an abrupt wave of migration forced by the Mongol invaders compelled groups of skilled people from the Iranian plateau to reside on the Korean Peninsula. Some of these people continued to live on the peninsula after the Mongols were kicked out. They gradually integrated into Korean society, as it was the case for many early Iranian immigrants to western China around the late seventh century.

Some classic works written by Iranians also contain various descriptions about the Koreans and the unique circumstances of the Korean Peninsula in ancient times.2 For instance, around the midninth century (when beyond Chinese and Japanese frontiers), hardly more than a dozen people in the world really knew or actually cared about the existence of Koreans, the Iranian renowned geographer, Abulqasim Ibn-Khordadbeh, provided a fair explanation about the location of the unified Shilla in his book, Kitab al-Masalik wa alMamalik (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms). In fact, Ibn-Khordadbeh's book is the first non- Asian reference to Korea recorded in history.3 For various and well-known historical developments in both regions, however, the earlier frequent contacts between people from the two nations came to a halt by the fourteen century.

In addition to such a unique historical background, Iran's relationship with the Korean Peninsula in modern times is a distinguished element in the international relations of the two regions. In fact, Tehran has established multifaceted connections with Koreans in both parts of the peninsula, making Iran one of the few countries in the world that has maintained close and continuous relations simultaneously with both Seoul and Pyongyang for many decades. More importantly, an astonishing web of complex interactions between Iran and the Korean Peninsula in past decades has overcome conventional assumptions, a different pattern of alliances and incompatible political ideologies with which each party is associated. How could all this be possible? What crucial factor or probable factors have played a role in shaping the contours of bilateral relations between the Iranians and Koreans over the past five decades? …


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