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North Korea, Iran Agree to Deepen Strategic Ties: Insider

Iran and North Korea have pledged to deepen their collaboration on bilateral "strategic projects" that could include additional nuclear and high-altitude missile work, Kyodo News reported on Wednesday (see GSN, July 23).

The new understanding was reached in April during talks in Pyongyang between a three-person Iranian team and top North Korean regime officials, an unidentified diplomatic insider informed the Japanese news agency.

The source, said to specialize in North Korea-Iran relations, said he has "no doubt" the new strategic bilateral cooperation will encompass missile and nuclear development. Iranian-North Korean collaboration on such projects had reportedly slackened following a summer 2008 stroke by longtime dictator Kim Jong Il, who died late last year and was replaced by his youngest son.

The deal could be a sign that the new Kim Jong Un regime is looking to deepen its connections with Iran at at time when both nations are increasingly being cut off from the rest of the world due to their atomic activities. Pyongyang has a known nuclear weapons program, while Tehran says its atomic work is strictly nonmilitary in nature.

Senior Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili lobbied President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to send delegates to North Korea in order to capitalize on potential new openings following Kim Jong Il's death, the insider told Kyodo.

A different Iranian delegation, comprising in excess of 10 ballistic missile engineers, traveled to the North in mid-April to observe the country's attempt to send a send a long-range rocket into space, according to the source. The launch was unsuccessful and elicited a new round of condemnations from the West and heightened penalties by the U.N. Security Council.

North Korea did not apprise the visiting Iranian engineers of the reason for the failure, in which the rocket broke apart minutes after launch, the source said (Kyodo News/Mainichi Daily News, July 25).

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim on Wednesday said North Korea's April rocket launch "made it impossible for us to return to the six-party process and any constructive negotiations," the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The six-party talks focused on achieving permanent North Korean denuclearization have not been held since late 2008; the negotiations encompass China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States.

For a brief period it seemed that real headway toward resumption of the multinational talks was being made after Washington and Pyongyang in February announced they had reached an agreement that would freeze a number of North Korean nuclear weapon-related activities in exchange for a quantity of U.S. food assistance. Washington canceled the food aid after the North's rocket launch, which the Obama administration said violated the terms of the bilateral deal. North Korea in response pulled out of the agreement entirely.

"Even before the ink dried on the Feb. 29 agreement, North Korea, in violation of international commitments and obligations, launched a long-range missile," Kim said.

The U.S. ambassador cautioned Pyongyang that it would not be rewarded for new hostilities and that "continuing to pursue nuclear weapons and missile capabilities will only further isolate North Korea."

Kim called on Pyongyang to observe the example of Myanmar and undertake market and political reforms that would decrease its international isolation.

"Burma and North Korea had many things in common, many bad things in common," Kim said at a symposium in Seoul. "But Burmese leadership recently made a very important decision. They decided to undertake serious political and economic reforms to try to improve the lives of their people.

"The United States and other countries responded immediately to the positive decision," the U.S. ambassador continued. "If North Korean leaders make the right decision, we will respond positively" (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, July 25).

Reports circulated last week of armed fighting between opposing North Korean military factions are likely without merit, Russian and Western experts told RIA Novosti.

On Friday, the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper published an article asserting that former top-ranking North Korean military officer Ri Yong Ho had possibly been killed in a gun battle between loyal soldiers and military personnel attempting to arrest him.

North Korea expert and former British diplomat James Hoare noted the Chosun Ilbo "has a record of running wild stories giving unnamed intelligence sources as the originators" (RIA Novosti, July 23).

Ri was recently fired in a move that international observers concluded was an attempt by Kim Jong Un to consolidate his power base.

The observed power play and as well as indications that Kim Jong Un is less secretive than his father have caused some to wonder if he intends to pursue substantive reforms or move away from the North's confrontational policy. That is not likely the case, according to an expert analysis released on Wednesday by the International Crisis Group.

"He could well be around for decades -- and with a growing nuclear arsenal," states the report, summarized by Agence France-Presse. The reports' authors said the North might see the U.S. focus on the upcoming presidential election and the looming new leadership in China as an opportunity to conduct a third nuclear test or launch additional extended-distance missiles (Agence France-Presse/Yahoo!News, July 25).

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