Amid the official attention and publicity given to the Iran Nuclear Agreement and North Korea’s new nuclear and missile tests, an important element of these stories has been largely missing: North Korea’s strategic collaboration with Iran.
The silence on this issue is not new. Since 2007, the Bush and Obama administrations have revealed little about the North Korea-Iran relationship: infrequent disclosures about collaboration in missile development; no disclosures of North Korea’s aid to Iran’s clients, Hezbollah and Hamas, an exception being an acknowledgment by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in August 2010; and Obama administration denials that North Korea and Iran have engaged in nuclear weapons cooperation.
The obscurity of this issue in Washington contrasts with coverage given to it overseas. Reputable newspapers in Great Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Israel and Australia have issued numerous reports since the late 1990s on North Korea-Iran collaboration in developing missiles and nuclear warheads. They cite non-U.S. intelligence sources and reports; defense and diplomatic officials from these countries; high-level North Korean and Iranian defectors and exile groups; and sources within the Iranian regime.
U.S. reporting has been far less, although there have been key reports in several leading U.S. newspapers, and some members of Congress have voiced their concerns.
All the while, collaboration between Pyongyang and Tehran has expanded. In September 2012, North Korea and Iran signed an agreement for technology and scientific cooperation. The Ayatollah Khamenei attended the signing ceremony and declared that Iran and North Korea have “common enemies” and had established an “anti-hegemonic front.” The Washington correspondent of Japan’s Kyodo News Service reported in July 2012 that North Korea and Iran signed a secret agreement in April 2012 to deepen collaboration on “strategic projects.”
Reports soon emerged, based in part on South Korean government sources, that Iran sent missile experts to North Korea to be stationed there indefinitely. These experts reportedly helped the North Koreans prepare for the successful test launch of a long-range missile in December 2012. Reports from Kyodo and the London Sunday Times described arrangements for a high-level Iranian delegation to observe the February 2013 North Korean nuclear test. These and other reports indicated a growing Iranian investment (including monetary investment) in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The collaboration presents two dangers. Former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in November 2013 that Iran and North Korea were testing engines for an intercontinental ballistic missile. This Iranian support may be encouraging Kim Jong-un in his intention to accelerate the program to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile — and a nuclear warhead for that missile that could strike U.S. territory. This is the intent of the 2016 tests. Success appears possible by 2018.
A second danger lies in North Korea’s major nuclear weapons achievement to date: The development of a nuclear warhead for the Nodong intermediate-range missile. The Obama administration has not disclosed this publicly, despite authoritative reports since early 2013 from sources such as NBC’s chief national security correspondent Richard Engel; the Nelson Report (read by most Korea watchers); and from top South Korean diplomat, Wi Sung-lac. Chinese nuclear experts told U.S. nuclear experts in February 2015 that North Korea likely would have 40 nuclear warheads by early 2016.
Iran’s Shahab-3 missile is a twin of the Nodong, developed with North Korean input. A Nodong nuclear warhead would fit the Shahab-3. The Shahab-3 could hit targets in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. North Korea’s output of Nodong warheads could be sufficient for Iran to acquire a number of these warheads. North Korea has been largely successful in using clandestine sea and air transportation networks to ship missiles to Iran and Syria. Interdictions have been few. An attempt to ship Nodong warheads to Iran would be a realistic option for Pyongyang and Tehran. This would give Iran a secret stockpile of nuclear weapons that it could unveil at any time and present the United States with a fait accompli.
• Larry Niksch was a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service until 2010. He is an ICAS fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and teaches at George Washington University. The views expressed are his own.