SINGAPORE – Although North Korea and Iran are thousands of kilometers apart on opposite sides of Eurasia, they are linked — directly as well as indirectly — in the North Korean crisis.
Iran’s nuclear and long-range ballistic missile ambitions are silent actors in the confrontation between North Korea and a wide range of countries in the international community, including the United States, China and Russia.
All these countries, and many others including Japan, have condemned Pyongyang’s threats to launch nuclear and missile attacks on the U.S. and American bases in Japan and the Western Pacific.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned at his first press conference last month, following his appointment, that a failure to respond effectively to North Korea’s nuclear sabre rattling risked emboldening Iran. Kerry, who will hold high-level talks in South Korea, Japan and China this week on his first trip to Asia as America’s top diplomat, said after North Korea’s third underground nuclear weapons test on Feb. 12: “This is about proliferation and this is also about Iran, because they are linked.”
Raymond Tanter, a former U.S. National Security Council member, put it more explicitly. “If you want to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, you have to take a hard line against North Korea. If you allow North Korea to get away with miniaturizing (a nuclear warhead), with three nuclear tests, with any number of missile tests, that signals to Iran that a nuclear-armed North Korea can get away with murder and therefore Iran will not be deterred from getting the bomb.”
North Korea and Iran could be the forerunners of a much wider spread of nuclear arms in Asia and the Middle East, as other countries in these regions try to protect themselves by also acquiring nuclear and missile capabilities. Unlike North Korea, Iran denies it is seeking nuclear warheads small enough to fit on intercontinental ballistic missiles able to strike the U.S. mainland. Iran remains a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while North Korea renounced it seven years ago.
However, Iran has rejected international demands to curb uranium enrichment and halt development of plutonium production facilities, both of which can make fissile material for nuclear weapons.
In fact, there are a growing number of reports and disturbing pieces of circumstantial evidence that North Korea and Iran are sharing their nuclear and missile advances through an increasingly close cooperation pact.
John Park, a nuclear arms trade specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that this exchange of technology and know-how between Pyongyang and Tehran has been a “critical — yet under-examined — enabler” of North Korea’s long-range missile development, culminating in its successful launch in December of a three-stage Taepo Dong 2 rocket that placed a small satellite in orbit before the final stage plunged into the Philippine Sea.
Park says that what started as a transactional relationship, where oil-rich Iran provided much-needed cash to North Korea in return for missile parts and technology, has evolved into an effective partnership that includes sharing technical data and procuring specialised components from abroad in defiance of United Nations and Western sanctions. “The time has come to view their previously independent ballistic missile programs as two sides of the same coin,” he adds.
The nuclear and missile partnership was sealed in September when the official North Korean news agency reported that top-level delegations from both countries took part in the signing in Tehran of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in science, technology and education.
In February British and Israeli newspapers reported that an Iranian physicist, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, was in North Korea when its third nuclear explosive test took place. Fakrizadeh, one of the architects of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, is involved in designing warheads that could be carried by Iranian missiles.
Also in February, other Western analysts reported that North Korea had recently improved its ballistic missile launch facility at Musudan-ri, on the northeast coast, and that several of the new features were identical to those first seen at Iran’s Semnan launch complex.
A report to U.S. lawmakers in December by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said that North Korea and Iran have combined to advance their nuclear and missile capabilities because neither is any longer receiving as much help from China or Russia as they would like. Both also find it more difficult to obtain certain critical components and materials because of sanctions related to their nuclear and missile programs.
To achieve effective nuclear weapon strike power, North Korea and Iran are working together to obtain sufficient stocks of fissile material, extend the range and accuracy of their ballistic missiles, and design reliable nuclear warheads small enough to fit on the missiles.
Iran already has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, many of which are copies of North Korean missiles. The U.S. Defense Department told Congress in its 2012 annual report on Iranian military power that “with sufficient foreign assistance,” Iran might be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. An ICBM is generally defined as having a range of more than 5,500 kilometers.
North Korea now appears to be irreversibly committed to a future with nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems to offset deficiencies in its large, but out-of-date, conventional military forces. Like Iran, North Korea evidently sees atomic arms as a means of regime preservation, national prestige, coercive diplomacy, and a way to be taken seriously on the international stage.
By banding together, North Korea and Iran may be able to better circumvent sanctions and isolation. The big worry is that with struggling economies, both North Korea and Iran will intensify illicit revenue earning activities by exporting nuclear weapons technology as well as ballistic missiles and components.
North Korea has a history of selling missiles and associated materials to a number of countries, including Iran, Syria and Libya. It assisted Syria in constructing a plutonium nuclear reactor before the partly completed plant was destroyed by an Israeli bombing raid in 2007.
Unless ways can be found to prevent North Korea and Iran from joint proliferation, the outlook for international controls to limit the spread of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles will be bleak.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.