SPEAKING FREELY North Korea and Iran: A spiritual alliance
By Issa Ardakani
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Just a few months ago, during the parade in Pyongyang marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended armed hostilities in the Korean Civil War, we saw a significant insight into the relations between the charter members of the "Axis of Evil," the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
During this parade, standing just two men apart from North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun, was an Iranian general. There was just one other foreign dignitary who was atop the tribune alongside Jong-eun and his general staff, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. The Iranian general was the only military attache.
It is no surprise that China would be afforded such an intimate seat for the parade. China and Korea have deep-rooted historical
ties; they are neighbors, the general staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA) largely consists of former partisans who fought alongside the Chinese in Manchuria against the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, the Chinese shed a great amount of blood fighting alongside the North Koreans in the Korean Civil War and China has long been North Korea's number one trade partner. It is obvious why China would be afforded this special status. But why Iran?
Trade between Iran and the DPRK is not high. In fact, Iran has higher volume of trade per annum with South Korea than with North Korea. And the importance of North Korean-Iranian defense cooperation has significantly declined after Iran eclipsed the DPRK in rocket technology. So why would the North Koreans afford the same respect to this Iranian general as they do to Yuanchao? And it is not simply this one parade; there are countless examples of both countries going to great lengths to emphasize the importance of their relationship.
Iranian-North Korean relations expanded after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but the relationship truly came into its own after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). During this conflict, the DPRK was Iran's main source of arms, with arms imports from North Korea comprising 40% of their total arms imports.
Likewise, during this time, about one third of North Korea's hard currency came from arms sales to Iran. Mohsen Rafighdoost - then charge d'affairs of gaining arms contracts - narrates that in a visit to Pyongyang in the 1980s, Kim Il-sung reportedly told him "For how long are you going to buy weapons from us? Go make them yourself!" When Rafighdoost replied that Iran had indeed managed to begin production on some of these weapons - including 70km-range multiple rocket launchers, Kim arose from his seat, pulled Rafighdoost from out of his seat, and hugged him.
Hung Son-Muk, former North Korean ambassador to Tehran, once stated: "We truly consider the advances and achievements of the revolutionary Iranian nation - under the slogans of independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic - as our own."
Then Iranian president (and current Supreme Leader) Seyyed Ali Khamenei echoed these sentiments: "The two governments and two nations of Iran and the DPRK have many common traits and ideals; it is this kinship that has resulted in the day-by-day increase in relations and cooperation between our two countries."
More recently, an army choir of the KPA performed a breathtaking rendition of the Iranian revolutionary song Ey Shahid (O Martyr!), and this image was proudly broadcast on Iranian state television. The two countries conduct a "friendship week" each year, and they often even coordinate political moves; the DPRK is currently trying to use the potential Iran-USA rapprochement as a springboard for its own foray into diplomatic rapprochement.
It is common knowledge that the IRI has less than stellar relations with other Islamic countries, particularly its neighbors in the Middle East. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: most of the ostensibly Islamic countries of the Middle East have acted as proxies for the United States, and have been vehemently opposed to Iran's Islamic Revolution since its inception.
Some - such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar - moreover, serve as the ideological outposts for Salafism, an ideology to which the Islamic Republic is mortally opposed. Thus, since the revolution, Iran has turned to secular socialist countries Syria, Libya, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the like as a base of allies more ideologically compatible to them than Muslim countries whose social orders and international politics more closely resemble that of the Shah's Iran than the Islamic Republic.
The most compelling of these relationships has been the relationship with the DPRK. Because of the geographical and (assumed) cultural differences between the two countries, it is all the more unexpected that they would develop close ties.
But if we look closer, we see that the DPRK-Iran relationship is deeper than simply an alliance of convenience born out of a mutual opposition to imperialism and US hegemony. At their core, Iran and the DPRK share an eerily common historical path and worldview. Thus, the reason behind this remarkably organic political relationship lies in ideological-cultural factors rather than material ones.
The IRI, through its rhetoric as well as its actions, has demonstrated its belief in the self-determination of nations (particularly poorer nations whose governments have made them dependent on foreign powers), and a multipolar model of world governance. However, the DPRK was a vanguard of this: It has been stalwart in its opposition to the West while also distinguishing itself from the rest of the socialist bloc.
Even though both countries have come to grips with the reality of economic reform - abandoning, to varying extents, autarkic economic planning which characterized both of their systems, this privatization was done reluctantly and only due to perceived necessity.
The two countries also seem to share certain moral values. In the 1970s, in an effort to keep their economic lead over the South, North Korea focused on developing its foreign trade. This led to more foreign visitors - many of them from non-socialist bloc states.
These observers saw that North Korean society was a highly puritanical one. It was unspeakable for young people to date or hold hands, much less to have premarital sex. Immodest clothing, too, was not allowed. (The Korean traditional woman's dress, the hanbok, is essentially a chador without a head cover).
Erik Cornell, the first Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang, saw that it was even frowned upon for him to hold hands with his wife in public. Schools are separated by sex, including the school which former leader Kim Jong-il attended as a child. Indeed, the North's chief cultural criticism of the West is its moral decadence. Nodong Sinmun, the Korean Workers Party newspaper, once boasted (among other things) that the DPRK lacks "drug addicts, alcoholics, and degenerates who seek abnormal desires".
This aversion to the sexualization of public life is also evident in their art. North Korean pop songs have titles like Let's Study! and Women are flowers (sung by an all-female group, no less). North Korean films are squeaky clean even when compared to that of other socialist bloc countries, showing no physical contact between the sexes and always having the family at the core. Such puritanism is very familiar to a religious society like that of Iran.
These common characteristics originate from one source. At the heart of this cultural relationship is an underlying ideological principle: the North Korean and Iranian revolutions reflect one another in that they both mark a complete transformation of their respective societies while also affirming and upholding certain long-held traditions and beliefs.
As an example, take the North Korean agrarian reform, started after the division of Korea in 1945 and continued with greater force following the end of the Korean War in 1953. Without knowing, one may assume that the construction of socialist agriculture in North Korea may have mirrored the Soviet push for collectivization of agriculture in the 1920s and '30s, which required harsh punitive measures by the Soviet government and resulted in at least hundreds of thousands of casualties.
But this was not the case. If anything, the North Korean agrarian reform showed a heedlessness toward the norms of the socialist systems of the time. Authoritative Korea scholar Bruce Cumings paints a lucid picture of the relatively bloodless but highly impactful North Korean land reform.
Land was not forcibly seized, nor were "poor" and "rich" peasants pinned against each other. Rather, every farming household (including former landlords, who in Soviet society would have been regarded as "class enemies") was given an equal share of land, which was in turn part of a "cooperative farm". These cooperatives were not part of a command structure; rather, they were semi-autonomous. The government provided them with machinery while taking a tax-in-kind (the rate varying based on the fertility of the land).
Further, the family land holdings were passed down by generation. The North Korean agrarian reform overturned a centuries-long system of slavery and suffering while at the same time upholding ancient Korean traditions.
Not coincidentally, this cooperative farming system also bears a striking resemblance to that outlined by Islamic scholar Ayatullah Sayyed Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, whose theories constitute the main influence behind the economic principles outlined in the IRI's constitution (before the 2004 amendments).
The state constantly propagates the importance of the family as the core unit of society, as well as of the importance of filial piety. Old people are taken care of by their children and grandchildren. And aside from the individual families, there is the national family; the family-state which places the leader as the father of the people. In Western media, North Korea is frequently referred to as the "hermit kingdom"; the origins of the term are actually Korean, dating back to the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1897), which adopted harsh isolationist policies as a response to aggressions from neighboring China and Japan.
As much as Western media has gotten wrong about North Korea, this observation is remarkably astute. The DPRK's social and political programs - in more than a merely symbolic way, are derived from Korean traditions, steeped in Confucian values. South Korean scholar Mun Woong Lee said succinctly (way back in 1976):
What has happened in North Korea for the last quarter of a century may be summarized as a transformation into a new Confucian society or family-state that is well integrated as an extension of filial piety, expressed through strong loyalty to its leader. To some extent, then, it may be said that the society Chu Hsi had dreamed about has materialized in Communist North Korea.
Compare this to Iran. It was religious zeal that inspired Iran's revolution; but why, after 500 years of Shi'ite Islam in Iran, did Iranians finally see the revolutionary potentials of their religion? This was because of a radical new thinking that emerged at the time, owed in large part to the writings and speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The revolution marked the end of 2,500 years of monarchy in the country. As such, it was not without a considerable element of anti-retrograde currents. In a 1967 open letter to then prime minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the Pahlavi regime "medieval".
He rejected monarchy in principal as a backwards form of government, stating: "... Islam came in order to destroy these palaces of tyranny. Monarchy is one of the most shameful and disgraceful reactionary manifestations," and saying, "Monarchy was treason from the very beginning; even the good kings were bad."
In January 1989, Khomeini wrote: "You must demonstrate that in the revolution, our people revolted against oppression and reaction. ... The people rose against oppression and reaction, and to make the pure, true Islam victorious over the monarchical Islam, capitalistic Islam, eclectic Islam - in other words: [victorious over] the American Islam."
Khomeini actually saw the Islamic Revolution as an anti-Islamic revolution of sorts, in that it was a major defeat for a form of Islam that had prevailed for many centuries, in Iran and elsewhere.
Khomeini rejected the apparatus of the Islamic clergy and the political structure of Iran (namely, monarchy) which had been legitimized by this same clergy. He made repeated contemptuous references to what he called "mullahs of the [royal] court".
In spite of these radical beliefs, Khomeini was not anti-traditional, nor did not reject all of the Islamic scholarship of centuries before him - in fact, in his historic letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, he recommends the works of Mulla Sadra(1571-1636) and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). Nor did he want Iranians to become detached from their past. And indeed, one of the reasons for his appeal was because he was quintessentially Iranian where Mohammad Reza Shah was not.
However, the revolution certainly brought about a new way to look at religion. Thus, the Korean-Iranian connection is a marriage between the preservation of our link to tradition, and the forward-thinking necessary to create new ideas - peppered with a strong collectivist spirit: " ... [U]nfortunately, instead of there being unity and harmony among us, each one persists in his own individual opinion, and naturally, if 100 million people have 100 million different opinions, they will be unable to accomplish anything, for 'The hand of God is with the group.' Solidarity and unity are essential ... [I]solated individuals can achieve nothing."
This spiritual connection not only indicates that the alliance between the two countries is likely here to stay for many years to come, but that the IRI and its non-Muslim allies have a much stronger basis for their cooperation than Western governments probably imagine. This multipolar alliance will constitute the main obstacle to empire-building in the near future.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Issa Ardakani is a Detroit-based historian and political analyst who writes mostly about Iranian issues.