Without question, the various activities of North Korea and Iran are worrisome enough individually for American interests that the prospects of them working together on any number of issues is nothing less than “double trouble.” Unfortunately, that problematic possibility is likely a reality.
Now, admittedly, the evidence of cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang in the open source world is limited, but the information that is available suggests that the two rogue states may be working together on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
They would certainly benefit from collaboration.
Considering how anti-American these regimes are, this isn’t welcome news, especially since in some cases one’s weapons research and development weakness is the other’s strength and vice versa, meaning the timeline for the introduction of new ballistic missiles and or nuclear weapons capabilities could be shortened. This, of course, would increase the national security challenges presented to American interests at home as well as in Asia and the Middle East and to its allies and friends.
But before discussing the chances of a Pyongyang-Tehran proliferation partnership, let’s look first at the state of each country’s ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.
z North Korea: Nukes R Us
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—North Korea—has made great strides in its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. It is a confirmed member of the once-exclusive nuclear weapons club, having conducted three tests since 2006. Various international public assessments estimate that North Korea currently possesses enough fissile material for some 10 to 20 bombs based on both plutonium and enriched uranium. David Albright of the Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that the North acquired enough plutonium to produce between six and eight nuclear weapons, based on Pyongyang’s work at its Yongbyong reactor.
The extent of the enriched uranium program remains unknown to outside groups such as the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a result of the DPRK’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. But the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimates that North Korea could have a stockpile of four to eight uranium weapons.
The Chinese assess that continued uranium enrichment could help expand North Korea’s potential arsenal to 40 nuclear weapons by 2016, according to press reports. Although the Yongbyong nuclear facility was previously assessed to have been shut down in 2014, according to the ISIS, there are now signs that it may be resuming production. Reopening the facility would certainly contribute to the possibility of the accuracy of the higher estimates. These figures are alarming—especially considering that the production of fissile material is considered a key phase of nuclear weapons development.
Even more concerning is North Korea’s recent claim that it has miniaturized nuclear weapons for its ballistic missiles, according to press accounts. U.S. Forces Korea Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti’s assessment of North Korean warhead development in 2014 and that of Admiral William Gortney, Commander of Northern Command and NORAD, in 2015 indicate that the Kim Jong Un regime could arm an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead.
With this in mind, what is the state of the North Korean missile program?
North Korea launched its first successful satellite aboard the Unha-3 space launch vehicle in December 2012, which it claimed was for scientific and technological purposes, according to press reports. Although the limited size of the Unha-3 did not demonstrate the launch capacity for an early generation nuclear warhead, experts assess these capabilities have since evolved.
For instance, the Pentagon estimated recently that the KN-08, a DPRK road-mobile ICBM system, could potentially reach America’s West coast. The design of the KN-08 system is of additional concern as a mobile ICBM is significantly harder to track and target, making North Korea’s nuclear force more flexible and survivable. Fortunately, even if some of the North Korean ICBMs are potentially “operational,” as Admiral Gortney has suggested, a lack of testing of these systems (e.g., warhead re-entry) could prove these complicated systems unreliable, inaccurate, and or ineffective.
In early May, the North Korean Central News Agency announced the successful test launch of a submarine ballistic missile (SLBM), potentially diversifying the DPRK’s strategic force. While there are questions about the purpose and success of the test, the movement of North Korea’s nuclear force to sea over time would complicate American strategic calculations due to the challenges presented by mobility, survivability, and “targetability” of such a platform.
Iran is also making progress on its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
z The Islamic Republic of Iran: Going Ballistic
Tehran has been moving apace with ballistic missile and (suspected) nuclear weapons programs that would not only threaten the United States but also deeply unsettle the already-troubled Middle East, including the prospect of cascading nuclear proliferation. Israel sees an Iranian nuclear breakout as an existential threat, and other major regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt are no more comfortable with the prospect of the “Shia bomb.”
While Iran covertly built an expansive nuclear infrastructure involving tens of facilities over several decades, the ongoing negotiations attempt to restrict Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, which, if adhered to and monitorable, might lengthen the breakout time for a nuclear weapon, according to the U.S. State Department.
But Iran’s program, like North Korea’s, is not limited to a single pathway to the bomb, that is, through uranium enrichment. Tehran has also constructed a heavy water reactor plant at Arak, which it claims is for civilian purposes. However, the reactor’s spent fuel could be reprocessed, which could provide Iran with an alternate route to a nuclear weapon using plutonium.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to insist that allegations directed at Iran about the bomb are merely a U.S. myth, according to news accounts that point to his fatwa ostensibly restricting Iranian nuclear mischief. Yet, the regime still refuses to answer the IAEA’s questions regarding the “possible military dimensions”—or nuclear weapons aspects—of Iran’s nuclear program, making Tehran’s words about its dark nuclear past suspect.
Indeed, despite the fact that the IAEA would likely be responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance with any future nuclear agreement, it is certainly possible that Tehran could endeavor to conceal its nuclear activities while reaping the benefits of any international agreement, much as North Korea did under the 1990s Agreed Framework.
Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon is also of concern. Iran maintains that its long-range missile capabilities need not be included in a nuclear deal because of the “non-nuclear” nature of its space launch program that has sent a number of satellites into orbit in recent years, according to a Pentagon think tank. Despite initial dependence on North Korean technology, Iran is now widely considered to have surpassed this early capability. Tehran launched its first domestically produced satellite in 2009 and is in the process of developing a next generation satellite launch vehicle, Simorgh, designed to carry heavier payloads, according to press reporting.
According to the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, this progress “could serve as a test bed for developing long-range ballistic missile technology,” including ICBMs. A 2014 Pentagon report writes: “Iran has publicly stated it may launch a satellite launch vehicle by 2015 that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as a ballistic missile.”
Without question, a satellite launch program provides the ideal cover for the development of not only a military space program but ICBMs as well. This claim of civilian intent allows Iran to largely avoid condemnation as well as violations of the 2010 UN Security Council Resolution 1929, prohibiting the regime from engaging in “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In combination with its “peaceful” nuclear program, Iran is, at the very least, well positioned to develop nuclear weapons for its ballistic missile arsenal, already the largest in the Middle East.
It is clear from the above that there are potential reasons for Pyongyang and Tehran to coordinate, cooperate and collaborate on long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, but are they? Let us take a look.
z Cooperation Concerns
The possibility of partnership between Iran and the DPRK on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has long been suspected and a cause for concern. Going back to early 1990s, Iran earned a reputation as “one of North Korea’s best customers for ballistic missiles and related technology,” according to the intelligence community. About the same time, Tehran reportedly contributed $500 million in financial support for the “joint [North Korea-Iran] development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles,” wrote a U.S. Army War College report.
Indeed, North Korean involvement with Iran on ballistic missile programs is widely accepted, as noted by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 2015. The Iranian Shahab 3, a medium-range ballistic missile, appears to be a virtual copy of the North Korean equivalent, the No Dong, which North Korea transferred to Iran.
These similarities extend to their respective space programs. According to a report from a Johns Hopkins University think tank, 38 North, “Iran’s Simorgh SLV [space launch vehicle] bears more than a passing resemblance to the first stage of the North Korean’s Unha-3.” A three-month study conducted by The Los Angeles Times in 2003 concluded that North Korea played a central role in Iran’s nuclear program, including visits from high-ranking military personnel to Iran’s nuclear installations and “assistance on designs for a nuclear warhead” by North Korean scientists.
In 2006, Iran admitted obtaining ballistic missiles from North Korea, writes a Congressional Research Service report. However, this primarily refers to their short-range SCUD missiles obtained during the Iran-Iraq war, and does not explain the similarities among the longer-range systems or within their space programs.
While these claims of nuclear “networking” are not publicly confirmed by U.S. intelligence sources, North Korea has a documented history of nuclear proliferation. Pyongyang worked with Damascus, Tehran’s ally, to develop what the United States and IAEA assessed to be an undeclared nuclear reactor that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007.
A State Department report determined that, given the reactor’s configuration and remote location in Syria, it was likely intended for the production of plutonium and would be “ill-suited” to produce electricity or for purposes of research. The successful development of a Syrian nuclear weapons program would be a clear cause for concern given Damascus’ close relationship with Tehran. A nuclear facility in Syria could even serve as a hub for joint research, especially if it remained undetected.
In September 2012, Iran and North Korea signed a science and technology agreement to partner in information technology, engineering, and renewable energy research, according to Reuters. Present at the signing was Fereidoun Abbasi-Davani, an Iranian scientist and Chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, who was placed under UN travel restrictions in 2007 as an individual believed to be involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities, reported The Wall Street Journal. His reported presence, if accurate, lends credence to press reports that Iranian officials may have also have been present for the North Korean nuclear test the following year, a test which some speculate could have played a key role in Pyongyang’s development and initial testing of a deployable warhead.
A commitment to cooperation against “common enemies,” as suggested by Khamenei in 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal, undoubtedly contributes to the concerns of some that Iran could even outsource its nuclear program to North Korea while it weathers IAEA monitoring if a nuclear agreement is reached. Indeed, DPRK-Iran cooperation and collaboration on missile and nuclear issues could prove mutually beneficial. While each side may not share its most advanced science and technology, both sides could benefit from some assistance in areas where development is still ongoing.
For instance, Iran could benefit from help on its nuclear weapons from North Korea—clearly seemingly more advanced—and North Korea could certainly benefit from Iran on space launch vehicles to help advance its ICBM program. Since Pyongyang and Tehran are unlikely to become rivals, much less enemies, a mutually beneficial relationship on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons is certainly a possibility—perhaps more. Such an arrangement would reduce the cost and time required for both countries to cross the nuclear ICBM threshold—and hold U.S. interests at risk.
Although the lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine exact capabilities and cooperation on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons both within and without the U.S. government, neither regime has attempted to conceal its distrust of, and disdain for, the United States and or its allies and friends such as Japan, South Korea, or Israel.
It is often said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In this case, while proof is limited in open sources, there is enough information and motivation to cause concern, especially the prospect that we may face ballistic missile and or nuclear threats sooner than we expect.
Indeed, it might be best to assume cooperation and collaboration, forcing us to prepare for the worst case scenario involving either or both of these rogue states and the resultant negative effects on American interests.
Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Rachel Zissimos is a Heritage Foundation intern and recent graduate of Texas A&M University.