On July 14, 2015, when Iran and the 5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany) ultimately agreed over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Republic of Korea (ROK) was practically one of the top three trade partners of the Persian Gulf country. In early May 2016 and only a few months after the nuclear deal was carried through, the then Korean President, Park Geun-hye, made an official visit to Iran where the two countries vowed to ratchet up their economic relations from roughly $6 billion to more than $18 billion in the years to come. Accompanied by “the largest business delegation in the history of Korean presidential trips,” Park’s high-profile trip to Iran persuaded many interested experts and observers to believe that the East Asian country was really determined to shore up its economic weight in Iran by drawing certain policies relevant to the long-term presence of Korean businesses in the Middle Eastern country (Choi 2016).
Despite all those upbeat expectations about the ROK’s future economic and technological role in Iran, however, various data and statistics coming out indicate that over the past several years nearly all well-known Korean brands and products have increasingly lost their market share in the Mideast country to brands and goods supplied by other competitors. As a matter of fact, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the East Asian nation emerged as one of the Persian Gulf country’s top trading partners in the world, outstripping a number of Tehran’s traditional trading partners from the West. And while Korea managed to even expand its economic presence in Iran in the heydays of sundry international sanctions levied against the Middle Eastern country over its contentious nuclear program a couple of years before the JCPOA was eventually agreed in 2015, the ROK has been doing relatively poor in Iran during the past years (Azad 2018). Such lackadaisical performance, epitomized by abandoning the long-established pattern of significant trade in energy with Iran, has critically influenced a sharp decline in the total volume of two-way commerce between the two countries.
While the plummeting share of Korean brands and goods in Iranian markets had indubitably something to do with certain policies pursued by the Moon Jae-in-led Korean government, however, the main culprit turned out to be the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018. The crippling sanctions which Washington under Trump subsequently imposed on Iran played a pivotal role in reshaping the scope and size of Korean commercial connections to the Persian Gulf country, though some unprecedented diplomatic and political troubles involving Seoul and Tehran during the past years have also had a lot to do with those punitive economic and financial measures targeting the Iranians. How did then the Koreans respond to those unique circumstances rendered largely by Trump’s approach toward the Persian Gulf country? What are going to be the prospects of a Biden administration’s policy shift for Korea’s economic performance in Iran? This study seeks to shed some light on Trump’s Iran policy with regard to Korea, its repercussions for the East Asian nation’s economic relationship with the Middle Eastern country, and potential solutions to chip away at those impediments under a Democrat administration in Washington led by Joe Biden.