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[Newsmaker] ‘Iranian rush’ poses diplomatic challenges

South Korea’s efforts to improve relations with sanction-freed Iran, while providing new momentum for its economy, is likely to come with a few challenges for its diplomatic blueprint.

Citing Iran’s alleged military exchanges with North Korea, as well as its persisting tension with Middle East power Saudi Arabia, experts suggested that South Korea should maintain balance amid the multilateral frame.

It was Iranian Ambassador to Korea Hassan Taherian who stepped out to clear doubts on Iran’s partnership with nuclear-driven North Korea.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (left) shakes hands with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, during talks in Tehran on Nov. 7, 2015. (Yonhap)
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (left) shakes hands with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, during talks in Tehran on Nov. 7, 2015. (Yonhap)

“There is no military cooperation with North Korea whatsoever,” he told reporters in a press conference, the week before President Park Geun-hye’s departure to Tehran.

The event is not only the first summit since the two countries established diplomatic channels in 1962, but also the first visit by a female state leader since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

“The only reason for the Iran-North Korea connection was because the North was one of the few countries that stood by Iran during the Iraqi war, but considering the meager trade volume, we have no reasons to further strengthen such ties,” the top diplomat said.

Denying allegations that Iran’s missile technology was backed by North Korea, he even advised the military-driven communist state to “learn a lesson” from Iran’s “peaceful and diplomatic” nuclear negotiations.

Robert Einhorn, former special advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State for nonproliferation, said Park should urge Iran to show restraint in the ballistic missile activity area.

“Recent reports show that Iran and North Korea have a certain level of cooperation (on missile technology),” he said at the Asan Plenum hosted by the Asan Institute for Foreign Studies earlier this month.

President Park has called on Pyongyang to follow in Tehran’s footsteps to avoid further international isolation.

Experts said that should Park successfully get Iran to urge denuclearization of the North, it would amount to meaningful progress.

Over recent months, South Korea has stepped up its guard against its communist neighbor, given repeated military provocations as well as increasingly menacing comments from the North’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Diplomatic experts here also suggested that the Saudi Arabian factor should be carefully considered when improving relations with Iran, considering the recently aggravated feuds between the two countries.

Their mutual hostility, dating back to the split of Sunni and Shi’ah in the year 632, reached a dead-end in January this year when Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite religious leader, causing Iran to severe all bilateral relationships with the Sunnite state.

“It is especially in times like this that we should not neglect ties with our long-term partners in the Gulf region,” said In Nam-sik, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Rafic diplomacy, or the principle of loyalty, has long been considered a key strategy in accessing Middle East monarchs. It was under such consideration that President Park paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with the newly-enthroned leader Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in March last year.

Adding to the sensitivity of the situation is Saudi Arabia’s economic leverage as global oil supplier and a significant consumer in the Middle East.

For years, the Arabic state has stood unrivaled as South Korea’s single-largest provider of crude oil, accounting for over 30 percent of its imports, as well as a top customer for its overseas construction business.

By Bae Hyun-jung (