North Korea, Iran More Integrated Than Ever On Nukes

Posted: 1st February 2013
North Korea, Iran More Integrated Than Ever On Nukes

Earlier this week, we reported on the international response to North Korea’s latest threats of a new nuclear weapon test. During that research, we came upon an opinion piece at Fox News by Van Hipp that details Iranian-DPRK cooperation. His commentary includes reference to a scientific study claiming two small nuclear tests were conducted by North Korea in 2010 (evidence that has been played down in subsequent studies). Those tests also linked Iran and North Korea.

Since Hipp highlights the availability of significant evidence in the open source (our favorite subject on this blog!), we’ll explore links between the DPRK and Iranian nuclear programs over the last two years:

Some of the key points called out in the timeline:

  • March 21, 2011: A Security Council diplomat provided Reuters with details of the investigations of the suspected violations. They involved attempts by Iran to import aluminum powder from North Korea and phosphor bronze from Chian, both of which are banned items.
  • July 2011: According to a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), North Korea’s weapons programmes use technology from Iran.
  • August 2011: A German newspaper reported that North Korea had provided Iran with a computer program as part of cooperation that could help the Islamic state build nuclear weapons.
  • November 2011: Diplomats were quoted anonymously by South Korea media alleging that hundreds of North Korean scientists and engineers were at work in Iran on nuclear and missile projects.
  • July and August 2012: Meetings held in North Korea (July) and Tehran (August) between political representatives from each country.
  • October 2012: Defense staff from Iran stationed in North Korea since October. The Iranian mission was reportedly made up of four experts from Iran’s Ministry of Defence and firms close to it.
  • January 21, 2013: Sixteen North Koreans, including 14 technicians and two top military officers, were reportedly trapped after a Jan. 21 explosion at Iran’s Fordow nuclear site.
What can we take from this? The ties go back years and include the transfer of weapons and computing technology in addition to manpower and scientific resources. Confirmation appeared this week in the form of defected Iranian diplomat Mohammad Reza Heydari’s saying that part of his job was to “draft foreign scientists to work on Tehran’s nuclear program and he brought many from North Korea into Iran.”
So where does this leave us? Here’s a history of North Korean nuclear tests and site developments:

Put the dip in activity during the middle of 2012 in perspective: these were the months in the wake of North Korea’s failed satellite launch from April. The uptick in activity may be related to refinement and repairs on the technology making leadership more confident in the December effort that they would wish to follow up with a nuclear test.

Diplomatic responses to the latest warnings are mixed. Seoul-based Joongang Ilbo Daily reported that a South Korean official had information that Pyongyang plans “to carry out a nuclear test between Jan 13 and 20”. This obviously did not happen. On the flip side, Leon Panetta suggested that there are no signs of an imminent test. Regardless, the quick repair of damaged tunnels at Punggye-ri in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, where the North conducted atomic tests in 2006 and 2009, suggests that upkeep remains important.

Reports from late December suggest that the response time for launch, from political decision to action, could be as little as two weeks. The evidence from recent observations about activity at two primary sites show a “continued state of readiness” that goes along with the line of thought above related to tunnel repairs at Punggye-Ri.

Much has been made about the pattern from previous nuclear tests. Essentially: ballistic missile test leads to sanctions leads to nuclear test as a show of defiance from North Korea. The sequence is present looking back at both previous tests from 2006 and 2009. Is there anything different this time to buck the trend?

It’s possible that China’s backing of recent UN sanctions changes the geopolitical landscape; they are, after all, North Korea’s biggest ally in the neighborhood and had softened the blow of previous efforts. However, signs of North Korea pushing forward with plans continue to emerge including satellite imagery reported today, February 1, showing the concealment of a nuclear test site tunnel at Punggye-ri.

How deep do you think the cooperation goes between North Korea and Iran? The cross-pollination of personnel from both countries appears to have significantly increased since the failed satellite launch by North Korea in April 2012. Analysts widely credit the success of North Korea’s three-stage ICBM launch in December to its partnership with Iran. Turning this around, will more advanced nuclear capabilities in North Korea leak over to Iran’s effort? The scary prospect of a truly integrated program: when either succeeds in weaponizing their technology, the world can expect to face threats from both countries in short order.