Nukes, missiles and friendship

Iran and North Korea have for years cooperated in buying, selling and developing weapons systems including missiles. Will new overtures between Washington and Pyongyang change – or poison – the equation?

Nukes, missiles and friendship AFP Photo/Raouf Mohseni/Mehr News

That Iran and North Korea have military and nuclear cooperation is by now an old story. Both countries are “highpriority targets” in the United States’ nonproliferation policy. Ballistic missile cooperation between the two even after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA) in 2015 (ie, the Iran nuclear deal) is going strong, leading not only to serious proliferation concerns at the state level, but also concerns about the spread of weapon systems to nonstate actors.

This cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang has come despite international sanctions being imposed on the two under United Nations Security Council resolutions. Also, recent speculation in the United States has been that North Korea could assist Iran in building nuclear weapons, or Iran could directly acquire them from North Korea. Whether this changes following the June summit between US
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remains murky at best. Amid these concerns, this essay studies in detail the historic developments that led to Iran-North Korea nuclear and missile cooperation.

A brief history

This is one of the most interesting sections to deal with, because according to the US Congressional Research Service, there has not been any nuclear weapons cooperation between North Korea and Iran. Those that claim such cooperation exists do not have factual proof, and most claims are based on assumptions and predictions, given the two countries’ record of proliferation and strong military ties, and their claim to be “principal strategic partners.” For instance, when Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, it was found that North Korean scientists had provided Syria with technology and material for the nuclear reactor, as well as helping Syria with its construction. Hence, it is assumed that Iran has probably received help from North Korean scientists for its own nuclear program.

Iran’s main opposition movement, Mujahedin-e Khalq, has said Iran and North Korea engaged in extensive information-sharing and visits by experts on nuclear weapons and nuclear warhead designs in April 2015, even as the 2013 Joint Plan of Action was moving toward becoming the JCPOA. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which was responsible for breaking the news in the early 2000s about Iran’s nuclear program, North Korean scientists from the country’s Ministry of Defense visited Iran in April 2015. These included nuclear and nuclear weapons experts, and also experts working on ballistic missiles and guidance systems.

There are reports that the North Korean nuclear experts stayed in a secret guest house, a cordoned off eight-story building, near a site run by Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, an Iran defense ministry company responsible for its ballistic missile program, in Khojir, northeast of Tehran. There are also reports that a general with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may have been present in North Korea under a disguised name to witness a 2013 nuclear test. In 2015, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was also of the view that Iran and North Korea “could be” cooperating to develop nuclear weapons.

Prior to this, in 2012, when Kim Jong-un visited Tehran to attend a Nonalignment Movement conference, he did focus more on signing a bilateral scientific cooperation agreement with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This agreement, according to reports, was similar to the cooperation agreement signed between North Korea and Syria in 2002, with the probability of a nuclear cooperation agreement. Five years later, in 2007, when Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear facility, as stated earlier the technology was North Korean.

Suspicion of nuclear cooperation between the two countries remains strong, as both have been customers of the AQ Khan nuclear network. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert said: “The centrifuge design that North Korea got from Pakistan is very similar to the one that the Iranians got,” and hence, involves common centrifuge technology that is easier to cooperate upon. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, on the other hand, suspected some recent and past nuclear-capable states of providing technological know-how to North Korea on the development of nuclear weapons, and Iran has been under major suspicion by many British officials. There are also reports that Iran invested $2 billion in North Korea that has surely provided some respite for its sanctioned economy, and this investment is suspected to be in return for nuclear technology know-how from North Korea. Iran’s Republican Guard in 2005 is also reported to have used North Korean expertise to construct defense infrastructure to protect and conceal its military nuclear program. This included tunneling and also the hardening of many nuclear sites, especially ones located in Natanz and Isfahan.

Again, the British government is said to be of the view that Iran could be a source assisting North Korea in its nuclear weapons ambitions. According to the government: “North Korean scientists are people of some ability, but clearly they’re not doing it entirely in a vacuum.” However, according to John Hallam, a Britishborn nuclear disarmament campaigner: “Iran wouldn’t have much to offer the DPRK in terms of weapons design, but Pakistan would have had a great deal to offer,” and that Iran may have had something to offer “in terms of enrichment” over the years, but not fullyfledged weapons design. Moreover, as Iran does not have a reprocessing facility, it may be possible that there is no cooperation, even in the future, on the path toward a plutonium bomb. In terms of cooperation on the uranium enrichment path, both North Korea and Iran possess different centrifuge technology, and hence cooperation would be cumbersome, according to some analysts.

One of the reasons for strengthened relations between Iran and North Korea, despite their ideological disorientation, is a common hatred of the United States – the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” philosophy. Both Iran and North Korea face a military threat from the United States, regardless of the recent feel-good Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Another reason for this strengthened bonding is the mutual belief that they have the sovereign right to decide how much military and defense capabilities they should acquire without external interference.

Another reason for strengthened relations was the need for hard cash as a result of the sanctions imposed on them by the United Nations. This led to the purchase of weapons systems, including sophisticated missile systems. Although denied by Iran, there is enough evidence to support the view that missile technology cooperation exists between the two countries. What increases concerns is that the JCPOA does not restrict Iran from the development of ballistic missiles, giving it the scope to acquire or develop indigenously ballistic and cruise missiles.

The Trump administration also refuses to accept that Iran has abided by the JCPOA. In May, President Trump exited the Iranian nuclear deal, causing further concerns, in particular in Europe. What happens next with North Korea remains unknown, but Trump’s past stern language with Kim could not only make it difficult to strike a deal with North Korea to give up its nuclear program, but could further strengthen military cooperation between Iran and North Korea, including nuclear weapons cooperation.

North Korea is at present in no mood to strike any nuclear deal with the United States that would restrict its nuclear weapons capability, but instead wants the United States to recognize it as a state with nuclear weapons capability. If, however, the United States strikes a nuclear deal with North Korea in the near future and breaks the one with Iran, it would be interesting to see how much further
Pyongyang and Tehran’s relationship would go. However, it must be noted that North Korea may be willing to strike a nuclear deal with the United States only if the US agrees to sign a peace treaty. Moreover, a nuclear deal may not restrict North Korea’s ballistic missile development program, which it believes is for its defense and for power and prestige, just like Iran.

Missile cooperation

North Korea and Iran have no religious similarities, nor are they politically or ideologically on the same page. But what makes this bilateral relationship a success (apart from anti-American sentiment) is the need for hard cash. Geo-economic reasons have driven the countries together on missile technology and other weapon systems.

One of the reasons for strengthened relations between Iran and North Korea, despite their ideological disorientation, is a common hatred of the United States.

Right after the United Nations slapped sanctions on North Korea in August 2017, the chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam (considered Kim’s number two), visited Iran for the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani.

North Korea is one of the most heavily militarized countries in the world, and hard cash from Iran, a major oil producer, to purchase weapon systems is, to an extent, funding Pyongyang’s militarism. This infusion comes as a relief for North Korea, given crippling UN sanctions that got worse after Trump took office. The two countries

Not only is there missile technology collaboration, but Iran and North Korea could also be cooperating on launch delivery systems for these missiles.

have also mutually supported each other’s ballistic missile tests, despite UN sanctions or restrictions. Kim praised Iran’s ballistic missile tests on the grounds that “Iran and North Korea share a mutual enemy [the United States].” North Korea furthered supported Iran’s stance “that missile development does not need to be authorized by any nation.”

Their missile technology cooperation is not new. It dates back to the 1980s, when, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was in dire need of missiles and rocket systems to strengthen its counterstrike capabilities. This cooperation commenced with Iranian officials visiting North Korea in 1983 looking to buy, and in
return, in 1987, Iran agreed to restructure North Korea’s $170 million oil debt. While in the initial phase Iran did receive Scud-category missiles from Libya and Syria, it later turned to North Korea for the Soviet-built Scud-B and Scud-C – which were renamed Shahab-1 and Shahab-2, respectively. By the end of the 1980s North Korea had already sold between 200 and 300 Scud-category missile systems to Iran.

Not only did North Korea sell missiles to Iran, but it also sold missile production technology, allowing Tehran eventually to make qualitative improvements to its ballistic missile technology, to the extent that it developed solid-propellant missile technology. Not only did the transfer of the missile systems to Iran prove advantageous during the Iran- Iraq War, but the deployment and use of these Scud missiles provided valuable performance data that was shared with North Korea. For North Korea, this proved conducive, as to otherwise gain information on the missile performance, it would have needed to conduct several flight tests. By 1993, Iran was providing significant funding for North Korea’s ballistic missile development program in exchange for operational training, infrastructure for missile production and complete missile systems.

John R Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, has previously expressed concern that North Korea would successfully place miniaturized nuclear warheads on its missile systems, and that it could provide this technology to Iran. Separately, United Against Nuclear Iran, a US-based advocacy group, said in an essay published on its website that technology and knowledge flow both ways between Iran and North Korea, “enabling each to refine and advance their illicit proliferation activities.”
According to the 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, North Korea’s ballistic missile proliferation activities have enabled Iran to achieve the “goal of self-sufficiency in producing medium-range ballistic missiles.”

There are also reports claiming the Iranian “midget” submarine from which Iran attempted to launch a Jask-2 cruise missile in the Strait of Hormuz was based on a North Korea design of a midget submarine that sank a South Korean warship in 2010. This means that not only is there missile technology collaboration, but Iran and North Korea could also be cooperating on launch delivery systems for these missiles. When these battery-powered midget-class submarines remain underwater,
they are difficult to detect, given their ability to make minimal noise.

Iran is also working on countermeasures to evade enemy missile defense systems, such as the development of multiple re-entry vehicles and bottleneck warheads, and much more. North Korea and Iran may eventually be able to collaborate on the development of countermeasures that would allow their missile systems to evade US ballistic missile defense systems.

Missile proliferation

Not only has Iran been accused of acquiring missile systems from North Korea, it has also been accused of proliferating such missile systems to asymmetric organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has also provided sophisticated Scud missiles to Houthi rebels during the ongoing war in Yemen to fight the Saudi military.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, Iran is now building a missile factory in Lebanon, in collaboration with Hezbollah. Iran is also supplying missile systems to Hamas. It must be noted that some of the weapon systems that Hezbollah receives are North Korean, delivered to Iran and then transferred to Hezbollah. In 2014, a US district court in Washington ruled that “North Korea and Iran are liable for damages because they provided material support and assistance” to Hezbollah. According to other reports, North Korea has supported Hezbollah in return for hard cash, including providing assistance in building network tunnels, underground military installations, bunkers and depots.


The future of Iran-North Korea relations will greatly depend on how strongly other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal – China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany – abide by the deal in the absence of the United States. It will also depend on future rounds of US-North Korea nuclear talks. While Trump believes that the Iran case will serve as an example to North Korea that the United States will not accept new countries developing nuclear weapons, North Korea will also gain some knowledge. Pyongyang will be careful not to include missile development (and perhaps sales) in a nuclear deal with Trump, which could ratchet tensions even higher.

Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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