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The enemy of my ally is not my enemy: the ROK-US alliance and ROK-Iran relations, 1978-1983.

MORE THAN SIX DECADES HAVE PASSED SINCE THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA (South Korea, hereafter ROK) and the United States signed a mutual defense treaty in 1953. In South Korea's national security and economic development, the United States plays a key role and is Seoul's most important partner--regardless of the significant recent advancements in South Korea's partnership with the People's Republic of China (PRC). In the Cold War era, especially during the Korean War, Washington protected Seoul from the spread of communism. Moreover, the United States provided a vast export market, credit, and aid to South Korea for the country's economic development. This long economic and political partnership has served to reinforce the long-standing ROK-US alliance.

However, South Korea's relations with other countries were often directed by US foreign policy. In most cases, the relations the United States had with a country decided South Korea's relations with that country. Indirect relations (i.e., South Korea's relations with country A through ROK-US relations) affected direct relations (the bilateral relationship between South Korea and country A). Simply put, Washington's enemy is Seoul's enemy, and Washington's friend is Seoul's friend. This logic might be especially helpful in understanding South Korea's international relations during the Cold War era. Yet, as history testifies, it does not explain every case. South Korean elites generally kept pace with the foreign policy of the White House; nevertheless, a number of cases exist in which South Korea does not share Washington's opinion of a specific state. The relations between the ROK and Iran in the 1980s show a clear difference between Seoul and Washington in their perception of Iran's threat. While US-Iran relations became hostile in the late 1970s and early 1980s, South Korea maintained its economic partnership with Iran. In addition to basic economic exchanges and trade, South Korea even provided military supplies to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Closer analysis of this intriguing history provides a more exact picture of the ROK-US alliance during the Cold War era.

In this article we discuss how and why South Korea established cooperative or "favorable" relations with Iran despite the hostility between Washington and Tehran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In order to clarify the factors that affected Seoul's approach to Tehran, we also discuss ROK-Iran relations in the 2000s in which South Korea joined the US-led international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. In addition, we compare ROK-Iran relations with Japan-Iran relations, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s shared similarities. This case study contributes to international relations (IR) scholarship in several ways. Through examination of historical events, it provides a history-based answer to the IR question of why a state would engage with the enemy of its ally. The research also contributes to the diplomatic history of South Korea by introducing the new historiography of South Korea's third-world diplomacy and international relations in the early 1980s. Moreover, it offers a new perspective on how South Korea and the United States narrowed the gap regarding their common foreign policy during the late Cold War period. Finally, it also helps elucidate the origin of current relations among the United States, Iran, and South Korea and how history operates in the current international politics.

A number of works cover ROK-US bilateral relations and the impact of this relationship on the respective countries' relations to other states (Brazinsky 2009; Cha 1999; Oberdorfer 2002). Others discuss the important elements of South Korean diplomacy and inter-Korean competition (Armstrong 2013; Gills 1996), and South Korea's view toward the economic relationship with the states of the Middle East (Azad 2015; Park 2008)--in-depth case studies that reveal how South Korea's relationship with the United States and with North Korea affected South Korea's foreign policy. This study utilizes recently declassified or published materials to analyze the less studied case of ROK-Iran relations, thereby filling a gap in existing literature on South Korean history.

In 2015, the United States and other Western states finalized their nuclear deal with Iran, making peace with their old enemy in the Gulf, Tehran. For its part, South Korea mostly welcomed the reconciliation between Washington and Tehran because Seoul can expect to retrieve its economic exchanges with Tehran--exchanges that deteriorated after South Korea reluctantly joined the sanctions against Iran on account of the Iranian nuclear issue in the 2000s. To explain the implication of the potential US-Iran reconciliation in South Korean politics and economy, we must first review the origin of their current relations and settings.

The Puzzle of ROK-Iran Relations in the Early 1980s

Relations between Iran and the United States have worsened since Iran's Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. Immediately after the Shah left Iran, Tehran demanded that Washington repatriate him. From November 1979 to January 1981, radical student protesters occupied the US embassy in Tehran, capturing its staff. The series of conflicts between Washington and Tehran clearly show not only a crisis of bilateral relations between the United States and its old and powerful ally in the Persian Gulf region, but also imply the drastic changes in relations between Iran and friends of the United States, including South Korea.

Before the Iranian Revolution, South Korea and Iran managed a reciprocal cooperative relationship mainly through their relations with the United States. Among the states of the Middle East, Iran was the first to initiate international trade with South Korea. The two established diplomatic relations on October 23, 1962. A monumental and symbolic event in their friendly relations took place in 1977 when Gholamreza Nikpey, then mayor of Tehran, visited Seoul. Nikpey and Goo Ja-choon, the then mayor of Seoul, agreed on a name exchange of roads in each other's capital--Tehran Street in Seoul and Seoul Street in Tehran (Azad 2015, 55; Park 2008, 115). These two US allies actively made economic exchanges and supported each other in international society, according to the conventional logic that the friend of my ally is my friend. Even after both countries were criticized by the Jimmy Carter administration for human rights violations, the friendly relations between South Korea and Iran continued. (1) However, the situation changed with the Iranian Revolution. The new Iranian government clearly expressed its hostility toward pro-US nation-states by its attitude toward the South Korean embassy in Tehran. A series of disputes between Iran and South Korea over economic issues ensued in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These disputes could have ended their bilateral relations, already on the verge of collapse because of the Iran hostage crisis. (2)

Coupled with the Iran-US conflict, North Korea's approach to Iran further undermined Seoul-Tehran relations. (3) Tehran and Pyongyang built up an anti-US partnership after North Korea made supportive comments about the Iranian Revolution in 1979. North Korea then provided military supplies to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s (Joongang Ilbo 1980). In one respect, Iran befriended South Korea's archenemy (North Korea) and spurned South Korea's closest ally (the United States), thus jeopardizing the legacy of friendship between Seoul and Tehran. Interestingly enough, the friendship remains--to this day you can still find Tehran Street on maps of Seoul and Seoul Street on maps of Tehran, and Seoul keeps up its economic and cultural exchanges with Tehran. (4) For Iran, South Korea is its fourth biggest trade partner next to the EU, Japan, and China. South Korea's K-Pop, TV dramas, and Taekwondo are also popular in Iran (KITA n.d.; ROK Embassy in Iran n.d.). This maintenance of friendly relations begs the question: How and why was South Korea able to engage with Iran, an enemy of South Korea's main ally, the United States?

Theoretical Explanations for the Imbalanced Relationship: The Enemy of My Ally Is Not My Enemy

A number of studies directly or indirectly discuss the alliance behavior of states and the influence of indirect relations on direct relations (Christensen and Snyder 1990; de Mesquita 1981; Farber and Gowa 1997; Waltz 1979). In particular, using quantitative methods, Maoz et al. (2007) test conventional wisdom concerning the influence of indirect relations on direct relations to clearly explain why a state can work with the enemy of its ally or the friend of its enemy. Based on the empirical evidence from their analysis of historical data, Maoz et al. argue that "the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend" and that "the enemy of my friend (or ally) is not necessarily my enemy." As they explain, under the rubric of realism, a state can make an opportunistic decision and betray its ally if it finds the decision better serves its own national interests--a logic supported by Lord Palmerston's famous comment, "there are no permanent allies and no perpetual enemies" (Maoz et al. 2007, 113). In addition, Maoz et al. tested the influence of physical distance between a state and its ally's enemy on alliance behavior and direct relationship: if two different states are located in different regions, they are less likely to have a hostile relationship even though one is the enemy of the other's ally (Maoz et al. 2007, 103). Indeed, this is the case with South Korea and Iran--located in Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, respectively--making it so that one hardly worries about a threat from the other. In short, Maoz et al. (2007, 101) provide a general theoretical explanation for the unexpected results of indirect relations' influence on direct relations, which the authors call imbalanced relations.

However, if we understand the world to be anarchical (as Waltz assumes) with the international order characterized by hierarchy rather than equal partnership among states, then the above explanation has its limits. Maoz et al. mainly consider the West-phalian European system where a number of great powers exist and build a more or less equal relationship. Yet in numerous other cases the international order is not equal. As many scholars argue, there has frequently been a hierarchical international order. The world after 1945 witnessed a hegemonic power, the United States. Such reality might not be an exception (Ikenberry and Kupchan 1990; Kang 2010; Lake 2007). For instance, the ROK-US alliance is an asymmetric relationship that joins a major and a minor power. Under this asymmetric alliance, Seoul allowed Washington to take responsibility for South Korea's national security, limiting South Korea's autonomy to some extent (Morrow 2006; Snyder 1985). As Maoz et al. (2007) argue, states can be opportunistic in their relations with their ally/allies for national interests (e.g., economic interests from trade with the enemy of their ally/allies); but a minor power in an asymmetric relationship--as opposed to a horizontal relationship--is more constrained from making such an opportunistic maneuver, as the penalty for such opportunism can be more serious to its national security. In other words, as the role of the United States in South Korea's national security is essential, it would be unreasonable for Seoul to provide military supplies to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War after Iran became an enemy of the United States. (5) Washington could have decided to penalize Seoul for such an opportunistic action--for example, by reviving the discussion of withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula, which is a strong lever for controlling the Blue House, as US troops are a key element of South Korea's security (Choi 2012). (6) In fact, during the Iran-Iraq War, South Korea provided military supplies to and kept a close economic relationship with Iran. This fact is hard to explain. In addition to ROK-US relations, a number of asymmetric alliance relations existed during the Cold War period. Many still exist today. For instance, US ally Japan also engaged Iran in the early 1980s despite Tokyo's close relations with Washington. What requires explanation is how such an alliance relationship affects the minor power's attitude toward the friend or foe of its major power ally.

Declassified archival documents of the testimonies of South Korean government officials allow us to propose a solution to the following puzzle: Despite the close relationship between the United States and South Korea as well as Washington's strong influence on South Korean politics, Seoul was willing to develop its relations with Tehran for South Korea's national interests (for example, economic benefit through international trade and a diplomatic check against a North Korea that was competing with the ROK in its third world diplomacy). However, Washington did not consider Seoul's approach to Iran as a serious opportunistic action that threatened US national interests because of the significant increase in the mutual trust and cooperation between Washington and Seoul in the early 1980s. (7)

Considering ROK-US relations during the Cold War period, especially in the early 1980s, it is unimaginable that South Korea would attempt to replace its partner, that is, the United States, with Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 spurred the United States to rethink South Korea's strategic value--once depreciated during the detente period in the early and mid-1970s--in East Asia, and the two countries quickly developed their partnership. (8) Seoul attempted to maximize its economic interests without hurting its relations with the United States. In this sense, it was still unreasonable for the Blue House to take risks by doing deals with Iran without permission, either implicitly or explicitly, from the White House. In other words, South Korea could have sold military supplies to a US enemy--Iran--because Washington allowed it. We can suppose that because of South Korea's contribution to the US campaign against the Soviets in the 1980s, Washington did not prohibit Seoul's dealings with Iran. Furthermore, Washington would have been well aware of South Korea's supply of military wares to and infrastructure reconstruction activities in Iran during the war period. (9) The nature of the ROK-US alliance and its enhancement in the 1980s facilitated their mutual communication, and hence the information cost and information asymmetry in their relationship decreased significantly. In a general sense, with its leverage, a major power in an asymmetric relationship might be able to access the information of its minor power partner more easily and clearly than two allies in a conventional alliance. Likewise, if the influence of the major power increases, such information availability should also increase. In this sense, the enhancement of the ROK-US alliance and relatively low information asymmetry between them in the early 1980s prevented a potential conflict, caused by mistrust and/or misunderstanding. Consequently, South Korea could have maximized its economic interests without hurting its relations with the United States.

Although South Korea was able to have economic exchanges with Iran, it could not politically support Iran's anti-US regime. Their bilateral relations were reconstructed under severely limited circumstances. There was virtually no significant political discussion between South Korea and Iran. In addition, South Korea attempted to keep its ties with both Iraq and Iran since a number of South Korean companies (e.g., Hyundai Construction) operated in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, and other Sunni states. (11) In fact, Seoul and Tehran did not recover full diplomatic relations until the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1989, when Iraq and other Gulf Cooperation Council states, Iran's enemies, stopped complaining about the South Korea-Iran military deals.

It is also possible that Washington attempted to maintain its contact with Iran after the revolution through Seoul's economic connection with Tehran. On the one hand, US politicians planned and implemented containment and isolation strategies against the anti-US Iranian state. On the other hand, they might also have considered an engagement approach toward the new elites in Tehran in order to revive US influence on Iran. Although relations between Washington and Tehran drastically deteriorated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was still too early for US policymakers to abandon a chance to normalize relations with Iran (Simbar 2006). ROK-Iran relations offered the United States a potential channel to access information on Iran and later could be used for future rapprochement with Tehran. In this sense, economic exchanges between Seoul and Tehran could have been deemed potentially useful to Washington. In addition, because of the self-contradictory actions of Washington--i.e., supporting Iraq while announcing that it would not interfere in the domestic affairs of Iran and Iraq--the United States lost justification to prevent South Korea's approach to Iran.

In sum, we review the decisive factors that affected South Korea's approach toward Iran, encouraging the Blue House to take a risk. For enhanced explanatory power, we also review the counterexample--that is, South Korea's decision to join the economic sanctions against Iran in the 2000s, in which Seoul fully subscribed to Washington's policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue--and compare South Korea's case with Japan, who also engaged Iran in the early 1980s.

Overview of ROK-Iran Relations

The Iranian Revolution and Crisis in South Korea-Iran Relations, 1979-July 1981

The revolution in Iran in 1978 and the deposing of Pahlevi as Shah of Iran in 1979 impacted South Korean politics deeply. The 1979 oil crisis--brought on by Iran's decision to reduce oil production --devastated South Korea's industry, which was heavily dependent on petroleum. The economic panic after the Korean War destabilized South Korean society, as unemployment was widespread and labor-management conflicts were fierce. In late 1979, a nationwide strike continued in South Korea, and protests were suppressed by the authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee. The government's undemocratic action ignited resistance from students, activists, and politicians, already angry with Park's longtime ironfisted rule (Cumings 2005). In addition, Park's suppression of his critics deepened his conflict with then US president Jimmy Carter, who already had strong antipathy toward the Park regime's undemocratic rule. In April 1979, Park and Carter had a summit talk and agreed to improve the human rights situation in South Korea. Park decided to release democratic activists. In return, the Carter administration suspended the withdrawal of US land forces from the Korean peninsula and stopped pressuring the Park regime. As a result, ROK-US bilateral relations improved to some extent (Cumings 2005). However, the Park government's violent suppression of democratic resistance, spurred on by economic hardship during the 1979 oil crisis, finally ended the unstable compromise between Park and Carter (Gleysteen and Gleysteen 1999). The pressure from Washington and the South Korean public led to a rupture in the Park Chung-hee leadership, and ended with Park's being shot dead by the director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, who was in charge of public security.

A number of Korea historians and political scientists considered that the 1979 oil crisis accelerated the end of the Park Chunghee regime (Cumings 2005). In this context, the new US-Iran relations became a significant factor in South Korean politics. Even though Park's government was replaced by another military regime in 1979 after a coup, the new government was cognizant of the impact an oil crisis can have on regime security. The general perception of the government was that in any circumstances, oil resources must be secured. After Park's demise, ROK-US bilateral relations improved. Yet South Korea never abandoned its economic connection with Iran despite Washington's conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini. Seoul attempted to secure oil from Iran. South Korea's oil supply dilemma posed a difficult problem for Washington to solve, as at that time even the United States experienced hardship due to the reduced oil supply. For this reason, South Korea made two exceptional decisions in its approach to the Middle East question: it decided (1) not to support the US ally Israel in the Arab-Israel conflict, and (2) to work with US enemy Iran after the Iranian Revolution. (12)

Since the 1970s, the political situation in Iran became less and less favorable to South Korea. In November 1979, shortly after Park Chung-hee's death, protesters in Tehran, furious with Washington's refusal to repatriate the Shah, attacked and occupied the US embassy. After a failed mission to rescue the US hostages--Operation Eagle Claw--anti-US sentiment in Iran spiked. In addition, the communist bloc, including North Korea, welcomed and supported Iran's revolution and anti-US stance. In the early 1980s, mainly because of the religious conflict with Iran (the center of Shi'a Islam), the fear of extremist revolution that expelled the royal family, the expansion of communism into the Middle East, and the regional rivalry in the Persian Gulf, Sunni Muslims in the Gulf region confronted the new Iranian government. Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein and which boasted a history of religious and territorial conflicts with Iran, decided to invade Iran with the support of the United States and other Sunni Muslim states. In short, when the new military government came into power in South Korea, US-Iran relations had already deteriorated precipitously.

ROK-Iran relations faced a bigger crisis once South Korean companies and their employees attempted to withdraw completely from Iran in May 1981 because of the threat of the Iran-Iraq War. When the ROK Embassy informed Iran of their return and requested the cooperation of Iran's revolutionary government, Tehran refused and even began preparations to claim for damage from the South Korean companies that reneged on construction contracts established with the former Iranian government. Moreover, South Korea became close with Iraq after Baghdad broke diplomatic ties with North Korea, which was providing economic, military, and political support to Iran. (13) From the Iranian perspective, in the early 1980s South Korea was the friend of Iran's archenemies (the United States, Iraq, and other Middle East Sunni states) as well as the archenemy of its new friend, North Korea --a worst-case scenario for the influence of indirect relations on direct relations. Unsurprisingly, Iran laid bare its distaste for South Korea and eventually downgraded their bilateral relations to a charge level on July 7, 1981, (14) portending a soon-to-be bitter end for ROK-Iran relations.

However, relations did not end. Iran's decision to downgrade rather than end relations with South Korea is curious. As mentioned above, Iraq, despite its lengthy friendship with North Korea in the Non-Alignment Movement, quickly cut diplomatic ties with the DPRK on October 10, 1980, once it found that North Korea had provided military supplies and Soviet weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (Joongang Ilbo 1980). Iran, however, did not break its diplomatic relationship with South Korea, but rather actively communicated with Seoul afterward. Why? Economic interdependence: South Korea needed Iran's oil, while Iran needed South Korea's labor force, technologies, and military supplies as Tehran waged its campaign against Iraq. ROK-Iran trade statistics support this argument. Despite political disputes between Seoul and Tehran--and the fact that a number of deals regarding military supplies or other sensitive items are absent from the official records--in 1980 ROK exports to Iran increased by 232 percent year on year. This rate was the highest ever. In one year, Iran went from being South Korea's thirteenth to its sixth largest trade partner. (15)

Cooperation with the Enemy of My Ally:

The Heyday of ROK-Iran Trade, August 1981-1983

The diplomatic fallout between Seoul and Tehran was short-lived. The West's sanctions against Iran hamstrung its economy, making it impossible for Tehran to sustain its campaign against Iraq. Because of these difficulties, Iran desperately needed help from other countries. Tehran quickly ended its confrontation with Seoul and suggested a new cooperative relationship between the two states. South Korea and Iran promoted their partnership in two different ways: through economic cooperation and military supplies. In particular, Iran needed to resume a number of construction projects in order to sustain its economic development and produce military supplies; hence it requested the ROK government to encourage South Korean companies to return to their old worksites on Iranian soil. For this, South Korea accepted Iran's request even after it was informed that the Iranian government downgraded its diplomatic relationship with the ROK. In late 1981, most of the South Korean enterprises that had left returned to Iran and resumed operations. In addition, the export of consumer goods from South Korea to Iran increased. (16) Second, the two states made deals involving military supplies, which are more complex and political than simply economic cooperation, as such deals would be a matter of significance to South Korea's relations with the United States. Therefore, such deals were limited and secretive. These military deals were risky business for Seoul. Washington could have reacted as if it had been double-crossed. Even worse, as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and foreign press revealed, such deals could never be carried out with 100 percent confidentiality.

At the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq had the upper hand. However, Iran began to repel Saddam's forces by utilizing US military equipment and weapons--a legacy of the times when Pahlevi was Shah of Iran--and new ones from communist states. Nevertheless, as time passed, Iran's US-made weaponry and equipment suffered deterioration and damage. Iran's revolutionary government did import Soviet-made arms from the communist bloc; however, Iranian forces required US-made arms for proficiency--especially for its air force--and to avoid various problems it encountered when trying to use Soviet-made equipment. Israel, Taiwan, and South Korea were the major suppliers of these US-made arms (Stork 1984). In addition to arms, Iran needed to find a vendor for ammunitions and other military-related supplies (e.g., rations, tents, sleeping bags, boots, helmets, uniforms, etc.). Unable to meet these demands by itself, Iran had to import supplies from abroad. To improve its self-sufficiency, Tehran promoted joint ventures with foreign companies for various items. South Korea met Iran's expectation, supplying military supplies and encouraging South Korean companies to take part in joint ventures and other projects in Iran. On one occasion, the Blue House even applied political pressure on one South Korean company (Hyundai Shipbuilding) operating in Iran, forcing it to cooperate with the Iranian government despite the company's minor dispute with Iranian officials. (17)

In 1982, ROK-Iran diplomatic relations had not recovered fully, but the official relationship does not appear significant when considering the volume of trade and its significance to their economies. The trade negotiation in 1982 well demonstrates the economic partnership between the two countries. Due to its own economic hardship during the war period, Iran increased its supply of crude oil and attempted barter trade with its trade partners. (18) The international price of oil began to fall--from about $37 in 1980 to $35 in 1981 (McMahon 2015). For South Korea, the impact of the drop in oil prices was bigger than expected; the Blue House even worried about oversupply. Furthermore, South Korea had never before engaged in barter trade with its trade partners, and thus considered such arrangement risky. Since it was predicted that the international oil price would continue to fall, the South Korean economy would have been damaged if South Korea had received crude oil as payment for its exports to Iran. More worrisome, if other oil-producing states demanded barter trade, the damage to South Korea's economy would have been even worse. Despite the risks, considering the potential interests from its trade with Iran, the South Korean government accepted Iran's offer--albeit limited to the 1982 trade. The Iranian government suggested compensation for South Korea's damage during the second oil crisis and offered an additional discount package for a long-term oil trade contract. (19) As seen in Figure 1, South Korea's exports to Iran increased more than threefold between 1979 and 1980. In the same period, South Korea's imports from Iran increased twofold. Although there were a number of drastic changes in the trade amount between the two states in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, mainly because of the fluctuation of oil prices and instability in the Gulf region, their economic relations became closer than in the 1970s.

However, South Korea's partnership with Iran, including its military deals, was likely to exert an adverse influence on South Korea's relations with the United States. Especially, South Korea could not have ignored the US doubt over the ROK-Iran partnership. For instance, the US State Department monitored the trade between South Korea and Iran and demanded an explanation for a couple of ammunition deals between Seoul and Tehran in 1982, which South Korea did not consider as items that required Washington's permission. (20) On November 19, 1982, the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Defense held a meeting and discussed the principles and limits of military supply exports to Iran regarding South Korea's international relations. According to government documents, the principles in exporting items were as follows. First, South Korea could only export nonlethal items or parts for maintenance of arms and equipment. Second, it was only allowed to export specific kinds of ammunition not produced in the United States. Finally, if it attempted to export any item that could not satisfy the earlier requirements, it should ask permission from Washington. For instance, South Korea was not allowed to export any defense articles produced with US assistance because of US regulations. In such cases, South Korea had to ask permission from the US government. According to South Korean government reports, the South Korean leadership attempted to alleviate US criteria for the export (to a third country) of South Korea's defense articles produced with US assistance. The ROK Ministry of Defense advised the Blue House to negotiate with the Ronald Reagan administration in order to increase the export of military supplies to other countries. (21) This implies that South Korea's export of military supplies to Iran was processed with US-ROK agreement. Specifically, it is possible that the United States did not consider the ROK-Iran deal seriously but did not want other US allies to follow South Korean behavior. For this reason, Washington brooded about South Korea's approach toward Iran but refrained from officially complaining about the issue. South Korea should have kept the deals confidential. Although the White House did not prohibit South Korea's exports of military supplies to Iran, the Blue House carefully arranged the export process: the military supplies were carried by private vessels, disguised as commodities, and were transferred into Iranian ships at a certain point. Moreover, the marks of origin on the South Korean military products and records of military supplies on invoice were all removed. (22)

Analysis: Reinforcement of the ROK-US Alliance and the Development of ROK-Iran Relations

Considering the ROK-US relationship, what has been discussed so far cannot fully explain South Korea's risky approach toward Iran. Rather, in this case, the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Washington warrants further examination. The influence of US politics on South Korea's policymaking process became even stronger in the early 1980s. Because then South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan usurped power through his coup in 1979 and mercilessly suppressed democratic protesters in Kwangju in 1980, he needed US support for his presidency in order to gain both international and domestic legitimacy. In this context, Chun carefully managed his regime's relations with Washington, and hence his relationship with Ronald Reagan (elected in November 1980) was most important for his future. In January 1981, the Reagan administration invited Chun to the White House. Yet the new US leadership did not warmly receive the authoritarian leader from South Korea. At that time, the summit meeting in Washington was processed in a strict and secret manner because of the pending issues between the two allies (e.g., the nuclear weapons program in South Korea and the import of US military supplies by South Korea). The US president did not make any concrete gesture to support Chun's despotic regime and doubted Chun's integrity. (23) At least in Reagan's first year in power (1981), South Korea was extremely careful in managing its relations with the United States. For this reason, despite its economic hardship from the oil crisis, Seoul was not able to satisfy all of Iran's demands in 1980 and 1981. Until late 1981, South Korea's main contribution to Iran was the participation of its companies in construction projects in Iran, not the provision of military supplies. (24)

Ironically, after ROK-US relations grew closer, South Korea's approach toward Iran became easier and more flexible. The Chun regime supported US foreign policy and assisted Reagan's campaign against the Soviets in East Asia. As Victor Cha (1999) argues, the reinforcement of the ROK-US-Japan triangular alliance in the 1980s was a core piece of the Reagan administration's East Asia strategy, and Seoul consistently satisfied Washington's expectations. In return, the United States provided sincere support for South Korea's North Korea policy and national security (Cha 1999). In 1983, the US president visited Seoul for a summit meeting, this time under a warmer and friendlier atmosphere. At the summit the leaders discussed East Asian security and their common policy toward the communists. The US leadership clearly recognized South Korea's contributions to the US strategy in the Asia Pacific region. This clearly demonstrates the development of the ROK-US partnership over these three years (Lee 2004). Before mid-1981, the mutual mistrust between Seoul and Washington prevented South Korea from promoting its relations with Iran substantially; afterward, with US support for South Korea's security and its foreign policy, the Blue House could take a bold approach toward Iran. In fact, according to recently declassified documents, South Korean government officials decided not to stop its export of military supplies to Iran despite US government requests for Seoul to do so several times. In response to the US requests, the South Korean government explained that it did not export any lethal items to Iran, adding that the export of some items, including specific gun bullets, parts for telephones, and antennas, do not require advance notification. The South Korean government also mentioned that it would refrain from exporting any sensitive items that the United States was suspicious of. However, South Korea did not stop exporting military supplies (e.g., military clothes, sleeping bags, silverware, and tents) to Iran. The Blue House confirmed that it could not stop the export of military supplies to Iran because of the importance of the defense industry to South Korea's economy. This was South Korea's complaint, and in response the United States did not take any strict action against South Korea. The South Korean documents imply that South Korea did not observe US regulations in a strict manner on account of the recent development of the US-ROK partnership. While preparing for President Reagan's state visit to Seoul, both governments refrained from raising the issue in a serious manner, and South Korea reaccelerated economic exchanges with Iran after Reagan's visit. (25) By October 1982, South Korea had earned $120 million in total by selling military supplies to Iran and continued to export military supplies to Iran in 1983. (26)

Paradoxically, the development of ROK-US relations and communication facilitated South Korea's approach toward this US enemy. In a conventional form of alliance, it is the mutual mistrust, caused by the anarchic nature of the international order, that results in the opportunistic behavior of allies (Maoz et al. 2007). However, this logic does not fully apply to the case of the ROK-US alliance, an asymmetric alliance, which implies the existence of a hierarchical order in their relations. In an asymmetric alliance, it is hard for the minor power to be opportunistic if such action runs against the major power, especially if the former depends on the latter, and if the latter does not make clear its commitment to the former's security. South Korea harbors a fear of US abandonment and hence continuously demands a US guarantee of its national security. Furthermore, Washington could utilize its commitment to Seoul's security as a political mechanism to guide its ally's policy (Morrow 2006). This structure considered, opportunistic behavior on the part of Seoul could weaken US commitment to South Korea's national security. But if the United States makes clear its commitment to South Korea's security, then Seoul could enjoy more autonomy in its foreign policy--that is to say, the Blue House could align with a US enemy unless such behavior harms ROK-US relations. Through its active communication with Washington, Seoul assured its ally it had no intention of harming the United States or US national interests. Thanks to the high level of ROK-US partnership, and low level of information cost, and asymmetry between the two allies, South Korea's military and economic deals with Iran became sustainable. In addition, South Korea's connection with Iran did not necessarily harm US national interests, but rather at some point could even prove advantageous if Washington sought an alternative channel to access Iran.

A similar case helps to confirm the above logic for the ROKUS alliance and ROK-Iran relations: the US-Japan alliance and Japan-Iran relations. In the 1980s Tokyo was a key partner of the United States and ranked one of the top buyers of Iranian crude oil before the Iranian Revolution. After the revolution, Japan's economic relations with Iran were tested. On account of the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981), Washington asked Tokyo and other friendly states to withdraw their ambassadors to Iran. Tokyo accepted this sanction on Iran with reluctance in May 1980, mainly because other US partners went along with the request; however, Tokyo made a number of efforts to keep its ties with Iran in order to secure crude oil deliveries. Noteworthy, too, is that Japan was the first to return its embassy staff to Tehran after the hostages were released on January 21, 1981 (Khani 1993, 15). Despite its close ties with the United States, Japan kept its economic relations with Iran and rejected the confrontational stance taken by the United States toward Iran. During and after the Iran-Iraq War, Japan kept a neutral position between the two Middle East states and even attempted to act as liaison between Washington and Tehran (Nester 1992). Considering its strategic importance to the United States in the late Cold War, Japan enjoyed more political leeway in its relations with Iran than did South Korea. In brief, history testifies that both South Korea and Japan were able to engage the enemy of their key ally because of their contributions to US core interests.

ROK-Iran Relations in the 2000s

In the 1980s, despite the US-Iranian conflict, South Korea maintained its ties and even increased its economic exchanges with Iran. Yet this is unlikely to remain the case for ROK-Iran relations in the 2000s, as Seoul has joined international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. What accounts for this difference? Since the early 1980s, ROK-US relations have changed considerably. With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the strategic value of South Korea to the United States decreased on the whole. At the same time, although disappearance of the Soviet threat in East Asia reduced the strategic value of the ROK-US alliance to the United States, the alliance has remained strong because of existing threats from North Korea. In particular, after North Korea's nuclear test in 2009, South Korea's Iran dilemma became even more serious because Seoul needed US political support to impose international sanctions on North Korea. In 2010, South Korea reluctantly began to fully support economic sanctions against Iran: as reported in the Wall Street Journal, "the Lee Myung-bak administration realizes that it can't be a responsible global actor while simultaneously propping up rogue states" (ROK Embassy in Iran n.d.). South Korea had to show consistency on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation in order to realize the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction on the Korean peninsula. In a sense, South Korea was forced to secure its core national interest (i.e., US support of its national defense from the North Korean threat) at the cost of the benefits from its economic exchanges with Iran (Kim 2011). The increase of South Korea's reliance on the United States would reduce the autonomy of South Korea. Hence Seoul had to follow the diplomatic principle of the United States in bilateral relations with Iran.

Implications and Current ROK-Iran Relations

Until the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, South Korea enjoyed dramatic economic growth with its exports to and cheap oil imports from Iran (Figure 2). Even after the war, the ROK-Iran economic relationship continued and the volume of trade between them increased. They recovered full diplomatic relations in 1989, and a number of South Korean companies took part in Iran's postwar reconstruction projects. In 2002, in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of their diplomatic relationship, Iran named places in Tehran Korea Square and Korea Park. The countries became even more important economic partners in the 2000s although their economic exchanges were discouraged when South Korea was asked to join the economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program (Wall Street Journal 2010).

Despite troubles, the ROK-Iran diplomatic relationship has lasted longer than fifty years. Considering their relationship after the Iranian Revolution, the two countries have maintained a close partnership despite having each other's archenemy as their own closest ally; Seoul maintains a firm alliance with Washington; Tehran still works with Pyongyang. Thanks to South Korea and Iran's high interdependence on each other's economy for the last thirty-five years, their "imbalanced relationship" could be maintained. South Korea keeps its friendly relationship with Iran despite its alliance with the United States and the conflict between Washington and Tehran. Iran, despite its cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missile and other military technologies, has not stopped its exchanges with South Korea, whose cultural influence, purchasing power, and industrial technologies are far better than those of the DPRK. The two states do not pose a direct threat to each other unless their military power could affect each other's regional security. Finally, the Iranian Nuclear Deal in 2015 would seem to encourage ROK-Iran cooperation and partnership further. From this perspective, they could remain good partners.

However, steady efforts are needed for the two to maintain their partnership. A number of potential issues could destabilize the current structure. First and foremost, after the mid-2000s, the Iranian nuclear issue, one of the most serious threats to international security along with the North Korea nuclear dilemma, makes it hard for South Korea to remain a good friend of Iran. At present, South Korea has joined international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear weapons program, but attempts to minimize the impact of the decision on its economic exchanges with Iran and will likely lift its sanctions in a gradual manner. In this situation, policymakers in Seoul and Tehran should actively communicate with each other based on the lessons from the 1980s in order to prevent misunderstanding of each other's intention. In July 2015, the international environment turned favorable for South Korea's position, as a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program was agreed. South Korea could retrieve its economic exchanges with Iran if Tehran upholds its end of the Iran nuclear deal. However, South Korea should make diplomatic efforts to narrow the gap between the United States and Iran as a shared friend.


As seen through the prism of relations with the United States, ROK-Iran relations in the late 1970s and early 1980s do not accord with the conventional wisdom that "the enemy of my ally is my enemy." Furthermore, considering US influence on South Korean politics on account of the ROK-US asymmetric alliance, the friendly relations between Seoul and Tehran appear rather exceptional in South Korea's IR history. This demonstrates that in an asymmetric alliance, the minor power can befriend an enemy of its ally if the minor power can ensure such relations do not threaten its ally's interests. The potential cost of such opportunistic behavior to the minor power, whose national security depends on its major power ally, would be much higher than that of allies in a conventional alliance. In this sense, it is realistic for the minor power to ask for permission from its major power ally in order to benefit from exchanges with the latter's enemy albeit without damaging their alliance. Late in the Cold War era, similar to the Japan-US case, the ROK-US alliance and its enhancement facilitated South Korea's approach toward Iran and allowed considerable flexibility in South Korea's foreign policy.


Lyong Choi is lecturer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Korea. He obtained a PhD in international history from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on issues of modern and contemporary American, East Asian, and Korean history. He can be reached at Jong-dae Shin is professor at the University of North Korean Studies, Seoul, Korea. His recent journal publications cover

North Korea's international exchanges and science and technology cooperation with the Middle East, and the history of the inter-Korean division. He can be reached at This work was supported by the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Research Fund 2017.

(1.) US National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977-1980, Lot 81D113, Box 16, Human Rights--Early Efforts.

(2.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Iran-Iraq War, 1981-83," 743.12 IQ/IR.

(3.) Even before the Iranian Revolution, North Korea attempted to undermine ROK-Iran relations. For details, see Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Folder 784/1978, Issue 220: Features of political-diplomatic relations between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and some countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, America (Cyprus, Spain, USA, Bangladesh, Philippines, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Central African Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Syria) January 7, 1978-September 23, 1978. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.

(4.) Tehran Street in Seoul is actually well known as a center of South Korean IT industry. It is also called Tehran Valley--similar to Silicon Valley in California.

(5.) Even worse, many of those supplies were made in the United States.

(6.) On top of this, Washington knew what South Koreans did. Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 XF.

(7.) Furthermore, in the mid-1980s, the United States provided weapons to Iran in order to secure the release of US hostages in Lebanon, held by Hezbollah, which has ties with Iran. The profits from the weapon sales to Iran were used to fund the anticommunist rebels, or Contras, in Nicaragua. For more details, see the National Security Archive (2006).

(8.) For detailed information on the ROK-US anticommunist partnership in the late-Cold War period, please refer to Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "The US President, Ronald Reagan's Visit to Korea, November 12-14, 1983," 724.12 US.

(9.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 XF.

(10.) Regarding the discussion on information cost and asymmetry in institutionalism, see Robert Keohane (2005).

(11.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Business Entry into and Operation of South Korean Companies in Saudi Arabia," 761.71SB; Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "To Promote Import Crude Oil from Iraq, 1982," 763.52 iQ.

(12.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Korea's Policy Toward the Middle East, 1983," 721.1 XF.

(13.) South Korea also exported military supplies to Iraq. See Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 XF.

(14.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Expansion of South Korean Construction Companies into Iran, 1980-82," 761.71 IR; Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Iran-Iraq War, 1981-83," 743.12 IQ/IR.

(15.) Korea International Trade Association,

(16.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Expansion of South Korean Construction Companies into Iran, 1980-82," 761.71 IR.

(17.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "ROK-Iran Economic Cooperation, 1983," 761.2 IR.

(18.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "To Promote Import Crude Oil from Iraq, 1982," 763.52 IR.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 XF.

(21.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Issues of Export of Military Supplies, 1983," 765.541.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Expansion of South Korean Construction Companies into Iran, 1980-82," 761.71 IR. In 1981, the proportion of South Korea's export of military supplies to Iran accounted for 3.1 percent of total exports of military supplies, while that to Iraq accounted for 20.5 percent. Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 XF.

(24.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "The US President Ronald Reagan's Visit to South Korea, Nov. 12-14, 1983," 724.12 US.

(25.) Diplomatic Archive of Republic of Korea, "Export of Military Supplies to the Middle East, 1982," 765.541 IR.

(26.) Ibid.


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Caption: Figure 1 South Korea's Imports-Exports with Iran, 1977-1990 (in thousands of US dollars)

Caption: Figure 2 South Korea's Imports-Exports with Iran, 1991-2013 (in thousands of US dollars)
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Date:Jul 1, 2017
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