Thursday, August 7, 2003

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was again visiting Tehran this week in an effort to persuade the regime to open its nuclear facilities to unannounced inspection, there were disturbing new accounts of heightened military cooperation between Iran and North Korea. First, the Los Angeles Times reported that North Korean military scientists were recently seen entering Iranian nuclear facilities, and were helping Iran test a nuclear warhead. So many North Koreans are presently in Iran working on nuclear and ballistic missile projects, the story said, that a Caspian Sea resort has been furnished for their use.

Then, just two days ago, a story in the Japanese newspaper Sankei reported that the two countries would likely reach an agreement in mid-October to jointly develop nuclear warheads. Also, under the agreement, North Korea will export Taepodong missile components for assembly in Iran. The story said that a North Korean arms export company was working on the deal, together with Iranian military and aerospace officials. Two months ago, Sankei reported that Iranian nuclear experts visited North Korea in March, April and May, possibly to learn from the communist regime how to be more successful in stonewalling IAEA inspectors.

If the reports turn out to be true, they would constitute just the latest sign of how Iran and North Korea, the two surviving members of the “axis of evil” mentioned by President Bush in last year’s State of the Union, are collaborating in the production of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. For upwards of a decade, Pyongyang, which is in desperate need of money, has sold missile technology to Tehran in return for cash. North Korea, in turn (which has no economic activity to speak of aside from its weapons programs) uses the money to lower its production costs and invest in new weapons technologies which menace its neighbors. Iran, for its part, has obtained missiles which can threaten U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Were Iran to acquire the Taepodong-2 missile (with a range of approximately 3,600 miles), it would be able to hit targets in much of Europe.

And if anything, the immediate situation looks even bleaker. Western intelligence estimates suggest that Iran may be just two years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon of its own. Were it to do so, it would obtain the ability to deter any military action against it by the United States in response to its meddling in Iraq and efforts to torpedo the Arab-Israeli peace process. As for North Korea, the Japanese government, in an annual defense report issued Tuesday, calls the DPRK the top security threat it faces.

On the positive side, the Japanese government’s new awareness of the North Korean threat has spurred it to come out in favor of speeding up research on anti-missile defenses. Japan’s new assertiveness and realism on defense is welcome. Washington should encourage Tokyo to play a larger role in helping protect the Pacific Rim from local predators.

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