Iranian flagship ballistic missiles such as Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 are based on North Korea’s Hwasong-6 and Nodong-1, and Iranian modifications for incorporating a nuclear device were subsequently shared with Pyongyang. When North Korea stages nuclear tests, Iranian experts are VIP guests. Korean nuclear delegations visited Iran up to a month before the 2015 agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
This year Iran and North Korea were quick to solicit Donald Trump’s attention with provocative missile tests. The 3,000-4,000km range of new Iranian missiles, profiting from Korean technology, menaces the entire region. When Iran conducted a failed marine test in May, similarities between Tehran’s Ghadir-class and Korean Yono-class submarines were glaringly obvious to experts.
Impoverished North Korea desperately needs hard currency and so readily sells military hardware on the international black market. Two recent shipments for outlawed Syrian weapons programs triggered a UN investigation into “prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation” between Damascus and Pyongyang. After 1,300 people were massacred in a Damascus suburb in 2013, the supposed dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons was hailed as one of Obama’s greatest successes. Yet subsequent chemical attacks prove that Syria’s capabilities remain potent, facilitated by North Korea and Iran.
Recent aerial images showed an Iranian site in Banias in eastern Syria used for manufacturing and storing Scud missiles. Several similar Iranian subterranean missile sites have been identified in Lebanon. This underscores the Revolutionary Guard’s role in regional arms proliferation, smuggling arms to Hezbollah and other proxies and using weapons smuggling to destabilize fragile African states, while profiteering from drugs and other contraband goods. The IRGC, North Korea and criminal networks thrive on instability in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere to pedal their lethal wares around the world.
These “axis of evil” pariah states have much in common, confronting international isolation and encirclement. Observers warn that when North Korea refines its ability to fire long-range nuclear weapons, Iran could have that capability the next day because of their long-standing bilateral defense contracts. One such 2012 agreement to share technology with Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was the “outcome of the fact that Iran and North Korea have common enemies because arrogant powers do not accept independent states,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. When North Korea’s Parliament chairman Kim Yong Nam visited Iran for Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration, his decision to stay an additional 10 days was interpreted as an opportunity to consolidate military cooperation.
In 1994 North Korea signed an agreement with the US to halt its nuclear program. In hindsight we know it simply went underground. Pyongyang later threw out international inspectors, rushed toward breakout capacity and then tested its own nuclear weapon, having accused the US of not sticking to its side of the deal. This has terrifying parallels with Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal. Despite the agreement’s obvious shortcomings, rather than seeking to undermine it, the Trump administration must use all powers available to ensure that Iran fully complies, refrains from meddling elsewhere and is given no excuse to return to clandestine nuclear activity.
But is current scrutiny of Iran’s activity sufficiently rigorous? The same opposition elements who first exposed Iran’s nuclear program in 2002 have submitted evidence that Iran is using North Korean blueprints to build underground missile sites, and Korean experts are helping the Revolutionary Guards in developing nuclear warheads and guidance systems. Iran’s future capabilities would be almost invulnerable thanks to Korean assistance in building 13 underground launch facilities.
Isolated and impoverished, North Korea does not care who buys its weapons technology. The Syrian people have already suffered the consequences, but nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran is the greatest danger of all.
Tehran’s hard-liners see Pyongyang successfully holding the world to ransom. The lesson they are learning is that encirclement, sanctions and Security Council resolutions matter little when rogue states possess ballistic and nuclear capabilities. The world’s greatest powers are reduced to impotence — particularly when the contradictory agendas of America, Russia and China, and a paralyzed UN, prevent genuine pressure being exerted on rogue states. For all Trump’s “fire and fury” threats, America fears the consequences of decisive action. Before he was fired, Steve Bannon unguardedly observed that the dilemma with any strike against North Korea was ensuring that “10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes.”
This was precisely Tehran’s rationale for developing nuclear capabilities — making action against Iran unthinkable and allowing it to meddle in nearby states with impunity. Once Iran can fire missiles from a submarine, its ability to menace Gulf shipping increases substantially, just as innovations to reduce the detectability of North Korean submarines enabled them to sink a South Korean warship in 2010.
Almost every major Iranian breakthrough in this field has been partly thanks to Korean facilitation. So as North Korea defies all expectations with the speed of its ballistic and nuclear breakthroughs, we should expect Tehran to be just a couple of steps behind.
North Korea is difficult to take seriously; a tiny backward nation under a lunatic dictator, barely able to feed its people and entirely reliant on Chinese benevolence. Its estimated GDP is just $40 billion, while Iran’s is more like $1.4 trillion. The threat from a nuclear Iran, with its expansive regional ambitions, would be infinitely greater than from North Korea — in a region already menaced by Israel’s nuclear weapons.
The failure to address Korea’s nuclear posture actively invites Tehran to seek its own breakout capacity, while encouraging Syria to restock its WMD arsenals. Such a scenario would make this despotic, theological regime in Tehran unassailable — using its oil wealth and military might to threaten the world and destabilize its neighbors.
North Korea may seem like a remote sideshow, but because of Korea’s role in facilitating WMD proliferation to other pariah states, how this confrontation is managed could define the geostrategic threats of the next century.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.