Both Iran and North Korea were part of the A.Q. Kahn proliferation network, and bilateral trade in oil and weapons has continued despite UN resolutions designed to stop it. Ballistic missile cooperation is documented, and nuclear cooperation has been an unspoken theme in Washington. Pyongyang helped Damascus, Iran’s ally, build a secret reactor. There are reports that North Korean experts visited Iran in May to help Iran with its missile program. Pressed by reporters on the subject of North Korea-Iran nuclear cooperation a few weeks ago, even the State Department acknowledged that it takes reports of such cooperation seriously.
In 2006, again in 2009, and more recently in 2013, North Korea carried out what appear to have been nuclear tests. The tests were all small, well below the blast that was achieved by the first Hiroshima atomic bomb and the subsequent Nagasaki explosion.
When America dropped a uranium-fueled simple bomb on Hiroshima (August 1945) it achieved a blast rated at about 15 kilotons (KT). The plutonium bomb with a sophisticated triggering system, used at Nagasaki three days later, had a yield of about 20 KT. The most recent North Korean nuclear explosion, by contrast, was approximately 6 KT, much smaller and it was detonated underground. Such a bomb is not trivial: its fireball would cover about four Manhattan blocks. It is, by itself, not sufficient to destroy the city of New York, but it would do a lot of damage.
Experts think the North Koreans have been developing small nuclear warheads, which they believe explains why the blasts were so small. DIA expressed “moderate confidence” that North Korea had mastered a nuclear weapon small enough to mount on a ballistic missile, and other senior American officials agree. But in May, an NSC representative said, “We do not think that they have that capacity.” Both sides caveat their views with the fact that there is no direct, observable evidence — only extrapolations from events in a closed country.
If North Korea can make a small nuclear weapon, why would it?
The main threat for North Korea lies to its south. If Pyongyang wanted to use its ballistic missiles to attack South Korea with atomic warheads, U.S. spy satellites would surely pick up the preparation and preemptive action could be taken to make sure they were never launched. Thus the better nuclear option for North Korea is to do it in a more stealthy way: perhaps by using a mini submarine or a fishing boat in a key South Korean harbor. In that case, the bigger the bomb the better.
Of course, the North Korean ambition does not stop at South Korea and perhaps it wants a nuclear capability to threaten the United States and Japan, two archenemies.
On the other hand, North Korea desperately needs cash to prop up a regime that has been teetering for a long time. A good part of that cash comes from abroad, and outside of illicit activities the big money seems to be from Iran.
Given relations between the two and North Korean capabilities, it is quite possible that the North Korean tests have either been of Iranian-made warheads or of warheads made for Iran by North Korea. Which may mean Iran is shipping uranium (and possibly plutonium) to North Korea and the North Koreans are developing the warheads and testing them.
If Iran already has nuclear weapons, the agreement with the United States, Europe, and Russia is a canard, enabling Iran to bring in a lot of cash and technology while continuing to expand its nuclear program outside its borders. Ending the UN arms embargo against Iran would also allow it to ship items (warheads?) into the country without international inspection.
There is nothing new about Iran operating outside its borders. On September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft and commandos attacked and destroyed Deir al-Zor in Syria and the nearby complex of Kibar. The complex was confirmed by the IAEA as a nuclear weapons development site, operated by Iran with the participation of North Korea.
It was not the only nuclear site in Syria. Marj as-Sultan, a facility near Damascus, is believed to be a uranium enrichment facility. With fighting taking place around this town, the German magazine Der Spiegel reports that the uranium and other material and equipment have been moved “to a well-hidden underground location just west of the city of Qusayr, not even two kilometers from the border with Lebanon.” And Der Spiegel believes that yet another nuclear facility was built this year at a secret location. According to Der Spiegel, Assad’s goal is nuclear capability, but how would this help him deal with the civil war raging in Syria? A more likely explanation is that this is an Iranian operation supported by North Korea.
Countries developing nuclear weapons often follow multiple tracks and build significant redundancy into their program so that a single point of failure won’t block progress in development. The U.S. pursued both uranium and plutonium weapons and created multiple facilities and different processes to get to its goal. Ditto for Russia, Britain, France, Iraq, India, and Pakistan. Iran is pursuing multiple paths to weaponization, but it is doing it with a twist. Because it needs a deal for sanctions relief, Iran is pursuing both domestic and extraterritorial nuclear weapons development. There is no doubt about its close ties to North Korea, and Syria provides concrete evidence of the convergence of the main players.
The nuclear deal with Iran does not consider these external relationships, or even officially recognize that they exist. Nor does it take into account that the explosions in North Korea could have been Iranian bombs. Although American intelligence is not completely confident on the matter, it is clear that the administration has heard voices of concern from within its own establishment.
This is another example of the ardor with which the Obama administration has pursued the Iran nuclear deal without regard for Iranian behavior before and during the negotiation.