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North Korean spokesmen reacted furiously last week to claims by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Pyongyang is supplying weapons technology to Iran and Syria. Representatives of the regime of Kim Jong-Il described Lieberman as an “imbecile.” The official Korean Central News Agency in a memorable phrase accused the foreign minister in an official statement of “faking up sheer lies.”
The indignant denials notwithstanding, recent studies indicate that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, is indeed playing a crucial but little remarked upon role in facilitating the arming of the Iran-led regional axis, including in the area of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean role is multifaceted, and evidence has emerged of direct links to terror organizations such as Hizbullah and extensive strategic relations with both Iran and Syria.
A recent study by Christina Lin, a former US Department Defense official and specialist on China, looked into North Korea’s strategic partnership with Iran. Lin noted that North Korea has been described as the “the most important single leak” in the international anti-proliferation effort in the Middle East.
Iranian-North Korean strategic cooperation dates back to the first days of the Islamic Republic. Its basis is clear. Iran needs access to advanced military technology to underwrite its regional ambitions. Its main suppliers are Russia and China. But both these countries are active members of the international system, and hence are to some degree constrained by international pressures. North Korea, on the other hand, is an isolated country, indifferent to Western attempts to control the access of Middle East radicals to advanced armaments.
North Korean assistance plays a vital role in the Iranian missile program. Its flagship Shihab missile project is a product of the relationship. The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile series. Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines from North Korea in 1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3. The Shihab-3, which has a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel within range.
More recently, Iranian officials were present at the testing of the advanced Taepodong-2 missile in North Korea in July 2006. This missile is the basis for the Iranian development of the Shihab-6, which has not yet been tested. These are intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic missile systems, thought to have a range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.
One report has also suggested that Iran and North Korea are jointly seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the Nodong/Shihab-3, which would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.
In addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the presence of North Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in attempts to develop a nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range ballistic missiles such as the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was cited by Agence France Presse.
The North Korean strategic link with Iran is not limited to Teheran. Rather, evidence suggests that it extends to cooperation with other, more junior members of the Iran-led regional alliance. Thus, Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari is reported to have confirmed that Iran helped finance the participation of North Korean personnel in the Syrian plutonium reactor at al-Kibar destroyed by Israel in September 2007. Iranian scientists were also present at the site, the goal of which was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Three North Korean scientists were reported to have been among the dead following an explosion at a Syrian chemical weapons facility near Aleppo in July 2007, suggesting North Korean involvement in other areas of the WMD endeavors of Iran and its allies.
And one must not forget also the extensive evidence which has emerged to suggest a North Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah underground tunnel network which played a vital role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The network, according to the Intelligence Online Web site, was created by Hizbullah militants trained in the construction of underground facilities by North Korean experts. The tunnels in Lebanon are said to bear a striking resemblance to similar facilities discovered by the South Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
So despite North Korean official anger at Lieberman’s remarks, the evidence is well-documented and overwhelming. Pyongyang is a vital factor in the arming of the Iran-led strategic axis in the Middle East.
But why is North Korea playing this role? There is, after all, little ideological common ground between the Shi’ite Islamists in Teheran and Baalbek and the servants of the bizarre “Juche” philosophy used by Kim Jong-il to justify his dictatorship.
The factors underpinning North Korean support for Iran and its allies are as simple as they are powerful: common enemies and hard cash. As a known rogue WMD proliferator, and as perhaps the most repressive regime currently on the planet, North Korea faces diplomatic and economic isolation. Like Iran, it is the subject of UN Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear program. Iran is prepared to pay good money for military and scientific assistance, and to underwrite Pyongyang’s own research and development programs, from which it stands to benefit. North Korea and Iran play a similar role in their respective regions of opposition and subversion toward the US and its allies. A cynic might add that the tendency of both regimes to indulge in the faking up of sheer lies is a further point of commonality between them.
These firm foundations mean that – short of action taken to disturb it – the friendship between the Kim Jong-il dictatorship in North Korea and the Iran-led “resistance bloc” in the Middle East is likely to flourish and continue to mutually benefit both partners in the years ahead.