OpinionOp-EdThe Iran-North Korea axis of proliferation

The Iran-North Korea axis of proliferation


Forbs: Both Iran and North Korea are subject to a growing stack of sanctions with which the United Nations, since 2006, has been demanding an end to their illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs.



By Claudia Rosett

Both Iran and North Korea are subject to a growing stack of sanctions with which the United Nations, since 2006, has been demanding an end to their illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Yet these two rogue states continue doing business with each other, of the most dangerous sort, at times in plain view.

Since North Korea’s third and most successful nuclear test, just last month, North Korea’s third-generation tyrant Kim Jong Un has been diverting the world with such bizarre maneuvers as glad-handing basketball eccentric Dennis Rodman and threatening preemptive nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea.

The real, deadly serious business of North Korea can better be discerned by focusing on its dealings with its fellow rogue state and longtime partner in proliferation, Iran.

Now edging back into the news, following North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test, is a deal that was signed between the governments of Iran and North Korea last September, when a delegation of senior North Korean officials traveled to Tehran to attend a summit of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Perversely lending legitimacy to that NAM gathering, at which UN-sanctioned Iran took over the NAM chairmanship for 2012-2015, were such worthies as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

On the fringes of that summit, North Korea and Iran signed a Scientific Cooperation Agreement, described by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) as covering “cooperation in science, technology and education.” The deal bears an ominous resemblance to an agreement signed between North Korea and Syria in 2002, according to former State Department official David Asher, testifying on North Korean rackets this past Tuesday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Asher described the 2002 agreement as the “keystone” of North Korea’s covert cooperation with Syria in building a clandestine copy, inside Syria, of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor — a project that had no evident purpose except to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. (As that reactor was nearing completion, in 2007, the Israelis destroyed it with an air strike.)

The North Korean delegation to last year’s NAM summit in Tehran was led by the same North Korean official who led the 2002 delegation to Syria, Kim Yong Nam, head of North Korea’s parliament. While neither Iran nor North Korea has released the text of the agreement, state news outlets from both countries did publish the names of some of the officials present for the signing of the deal. It is a list that suggests nuclear proliferation may be at the core of this deal.

According to a Sept. 2, 2012 report by North Korea’s KCNA, Iranian officials present for the signing of the agreement included not only President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani (who was blacklisted by the U.N. in 2007 as an Iranian official “involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities”). Also on hand were Iran’s defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, as well as a number of other ministers, and the governor of Iran’s Central Bank. Among those present on the North Korean side were the veteran of the 2002 Syria deal, Kim Yong Nam, and Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun.

Adding yet more heft to this deal, concurrent with its signing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave his public support to Kim Yong Nam, and the Iran-North Korea alliance. According to a March 8 Wall Street Journal dispatch, citing Iran’s official FARS news agency, Khamenei told Kim, during his stay in Tehran: “The Islamic Repubic of Iran and North Korea have common enemies since the arrogant powers can’t bear independent governments.” In Iran’s lexicon, those “arrogant powers” clearly include the U.S. — similarly referenced by North Korea in 2011, when North Korean deputy foreign minister Pak Kil Yon visited Iran and in comments posted on Ahmadinejad’s web site described Tehran and Pyongyang as being in “one trench” against “arrogant powers.”

Such mutual affections were also on display in a KCNA report dated Feb. 15, 2013, just three days after North Korea’s nuclear test. Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang were invited by the North Korean government to a celebration of the birthday of the late North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il. Among those attending was Iran’s military attache in Pyongyang, Hassan Reza Husseini, whom KCNA deferentially described as “Doyen of the military attache corps.”

Following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, a spate of international press reports claimed that Iranian officials had traveled to North Korea to witness the test. To date, there has been no official confirmation from any quarter of these accounts, which were sourced to unnamed intelligence or diplomatic personnel. But are they credible? Yes, in spades. Experts on North Korean proliferation, such as former defense intelligence analyst Bruce Bechtol, say that Iranians have been present at every previous major North Korean missile and nuclear test.

The relationship between the two rogue states is deep, longstanding, lucrative for cash-hungry North Korea and advantageous for an Iranian regime seeking ever more powerful weapons for its arsenal. The ties go back to the early years of Iran’s Islamic revolution, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when North Korea began selling Iran its knock-offs of Soviet scud missiles. Weapons traffic between the two has flourished ever since, with North Korea operating chiefly as the supplier, and Iran as the buyer — though there have also been reports of collaboration on missile testing and technology.

Not that the Iran-North Korea axis should be viewed in isolation. Both governments have become adept at exploiting multiple routes to weapons of mass destruction. Both have been lively participants for decades in the evolving global webs of illicit proliferation activities. In these webs, China has played a huge role, variously serving over the years as a provider of equipment and technology, or a middleman for procurement. Along with such countries as China, Syria, and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, both Iran and North Korea were involved in Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network.

Indeed, the recent Scientific Cooperation Agreement between North Korea and Iran bears an alarming resemblance not only to North Korea’s 2002 nuclear deal with Syria, but to a 1993 missiles-for-nuclear-technology bargain between North Korea and Pakistan, according to John Tkacik, director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Tkacik points as a reminder to his written testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last year, in which he described how during a 1993 trip to Pyongyang, the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, with the apparent backing of China, reportedly delivered “critical nuclear data” to North Korea, in exchange for North Korean missile components and designs.

Out of these webs of proliferation activities, it is the Iran-North Korea connection that has been emerging as the most virulent, immediate threat. As business partners, they are a particularly neat fit. Iran, with its visions of empire, has oil money. Cash-hungry North Korea has nuclear technology, an outlaw willingness to conduct tests, and long experience in wielding its nuclear ventures to extort concessions from the U.S. and its allies. Both countries are adept at spinning webs of front companies to dodge sanctions. Both are enriching uranium. The stage is set for North Korea, having shopped ever more sophisticated missiles to Iran, to perfect and deliver the warheads to go with them.

Can this be stopped? From about 2003-2005, in a crackdown best known for the resulting freeze of North Korean funds in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, the U.S. inflicted real pain on North Korea’s ruling elite, through a massive inter-agency effort to smoke out and shut down the illicit global rackets that sustain the Pyongyang regime. The targets included not only North Korea’s proliferation traffic, but its global rackets in counterfeit currency, narcotics and even counterfeit U.S. postage stamps.

Had this effort continued, it might have brought down Pyongyang’s dynastic, totalitarian, Kim regime. But the Bush administration then eased up, and through the Six-Party Talks cut a nuclear freeze deal in 2007 with North Korea. By late 2008, North Korea had definitively reneged on that deal, but only after raking in such concessions as free food and fuel, return of the frozen funds, and the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states.

David Asher, who served as the State Department’s coordinator for the old inter-agency effort to shut down North Korea’s rackets, urges that a similar campaign be launched today. In his March 5 congressional testimony, Asher recommended that the U.S., together with such allies as Japan and South Korea, “organize and commence a global program, a comprehensive action targeting Pyongyang’s proliferation apparatus, its facilitators, its partners, agents, proxies, its overseas presence.” By now, that seems the very least that might be done to counter the rising threat of the partnership-in-proliferation between North Korea and Iran.

Ms. Rosett is Journalist-in-Residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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