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Iran's official IRNA news agency reported Kim Yong Nam, chairman of the Supreme Assembly of North Korea, arrived Thursday for the weekend inauguration ceremony for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
But given the head of North Korea's parliament is expected to stay for 10 days in Iran, the trip is being seen as a front for other purposes, including expanding military cooperation. At the same time, Pyongyang is looking for ways to counter sanctions and to boost the hard currency for the dynastic regime led by Kim Jong Un.
"There could be very problematic cooperation going on because of the past history and because it makes strategic sense, especially for Iran now," said Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program. INSS is an independent think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University.
Kim Yong Nam's visit coincided with a move by the United Nations Security Council to slap sanctions that bar exports of North Korean coal, lead, iron ore and seafood. The new restrictions could slash the hermit regime's roughly $3 billion annual export revenue by one third.
The U.S.-sponsored resolution, which passed unanimously, followed the North's second intercontinental ballistic missile launch last month. It also curbs the number of North Korean laborers working abroad and clamps down on new economic joint ventures with Pyongyang.
President Donald Trump cheered to U.N.'s action in tweets Saturday, describing it as "the single largest economic sanctions package ever on North Korea" and noting "China and Russia voted with us."
The new sanctions have been proposed for some time by Washington, and pressure was applied on China, North Korea's longtime ally and its largest trading partner, to go ahead with them. Once the U.S. obtained Beijing's approval on the new resolution, it began negotiating with other nations part of the 15-member U.N. Security Council.
In comments after his swearing-in ceremony Saturday, Iran's Rouhani said, "The sanctions policy in today's world is a failed and fruitless policy," according to a report from Iran's semi-official Fars news agency.
Meanwhile, the man whom Iran described as the North's "No. 2" is believed to be traveling with a delegation of other officials from Pyongyang, including economic and military officials.
"For North Korea, it's not a question of ideology," Landau said. "It's not a question of being close politically and maybe in terms of any of their religious orientation. It's all about who can pay in hard cash. That's what makes North Korea a very dangerous source of nuclear technology, components and know-how."
Last month, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said in a speech at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance that he had "created two new mission centers aimed at focusing on putting a dagger in the heart of the Korean problem and the problem in Iran."
"Both the North Koreans and Iranians feel a serious threat from the United States and the West and sort of see each other as very different countries but facing a somewhat similar situation," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear proliferation expert and professor of practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
North Korea's newly built embassy in Tehran opened Wednesday, according to the North's state-run KCNA news agency. It said the new embassy was "built to boost exchanges, contacts and cooperation between the two countries for world peace and security and international justice."
After the second ICBM test last month, defense experts said it appeared North Korea's long-range ballistic missile had the range to reach half, if not most, of the continental United States. Iran could have an ICBM capability similar to North Korea within a few years, as just last week it successfully launched a satellite-carrying rocket that some see as a precursor to long-range ballistic missile weapon capability.
"There's been fairly extensive cooperation on missiles," said Bunn. "And in fact, early generations of Iranian missiles were thought to be basically modestly adapted North Korean missiles."
For example, Tehran's Shahab-3 ballistic missile, capable of reaching Saudi Arabia from Iranian land, is based on technology from North Korea's Nodong-1 rockets. Iran's Ghadir small submarine, which in May conducted a cruise-missile test, is a vessel remarkably similar to those used by Pyongyang.
There's still a bit of a mystery on the nuclear side, but some former CIA analysts have previously said Iranian scientists have attended nuclear tests in North Korea. There have been recent reports North Korea may be preparing for its sixth nuclear test, and it's not out of the realm of possibilities that new international sanctions could provoke Pyongyang to go ahead with the test as a form of protest.
Tehran's hands are tied due to the international nuclear agreement, although there's a possibility it could quietly be teaming up with North Korea on nuclear research and doing it from the Korean Peninsula.
"The fact they are cooperating so closely on the missile realm is cause to believe that there could be even more cooperation going on even directly in the nuclear realm," said Landau, the Israeli-based national security expert.
Bunn, however, isn't so sure there's currently any collaboration on the nuclear side between the two regimes but said "there's a real danger potential" of it happening.
- Reuters contributed to this reporting.