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Why North Korea and Iran make nearly perfect partners

Iran north koreaReuters/Amanda Macias/Business InsiderIran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un.

In this excerpt from “The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War And America’s Crisis Of Leadership,” authors Douglas E. Schoen and Melik Kaylan explain how rogue regimes align and use proxies to undermine the US.
“It’s very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries,” a senior American official told the New York Times early in 2013 — the other country being Iran. He spoke after an Israeli publication ran an article, “Why Iran Already Has the Bomb,” which argued that North Korea and Iran were working together to develop nuclear weapons.

By this line of thinking, North Korea’s successful nuclear test meant that, for all intents and purposes, Iran had acquired a nuclear weapon as well.

Sound far-fetched? Not to close observers of the situation.

North KoreaREUTERS/Bobby YipA soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012.

Iranians have been present at every North Korean nuclear and missile test. Iranian engineers attended the North’s April 2012 launch of the Unha-3 long-range missile. That launch failed, but the Iranians helped analyse the failure and address the problems. “For more than a decade, Pyongyang and Tehran have run what is essentially a joint missile-development program,” says Gordon Chang. And North Korea “almost certainly provides missile flight-test data to Iran.”

Are the Iranians using North Korea as a conduit for their own nuclear ambitions? Hard evidence so far is lacking, but the connections and circumstances all point to the fact that North Korea is selling the Iranians nuclear technology in a mutually beneficial relationship that gives the Iranians the know-how they need while providing Pyongyang with economic and political assistance.

Ayatollah Ali KhameneiReutersIran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to a crowd in the holy city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran in 2010.

Despite some advancement on this front, at least vis-à-vis Iran, an Iran — North Korea nuclear proliferation nexus would negate American efforts to restrict Iran’s weapons-development programs, because North Korea already has a nuclear weapon and could transfer it at will.
The likely Iran — North Korea collaboration underscores an important point: The United States is up against a series of Axis relationships, not just that involving Russia and China or those involving their rogue-state clients. The rogues themselves work together, both in concert with and independent of their sponsors.

President Obama and Vice President Biden in limovia Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Al Jazeera reported on a leaked UN report indicating that “North Korea and Iran have been exchanging ballistic-missile technology in violation of UN sanctions.” The report suggested that the two countries transferred prohibited technologies “on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air.” Even more explosively, it indicated, through several diplomats who insisted on anonymity, that a third country had served as an outlet for the transfers — China.
The growing Iran — North Korea partnership masks the fact that, on the surface at least, the two nations appear about as different from each other as can be imagined. North Korea is an impoverished, secular dictatorship in Asia, while Iran is a Middle East theocracy with a growing middle class.

The basis of their relationship is not history or culture, but rather a common enemy and a willingness to work with each other in spite of international isolation. Iran provides North Korea with foreign currency, which, due to oil sales, it has in reasonable abundance, while North Korea sends Iran missiles and other weapons technologies unobtainable elsewhere.

Kim Jong-un watching planesKCNA WatchSupreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un watches a launch.

It is this nexus that Claudia Rosett refers to as the “axis of proliferation.” As Rosett points out, the two nations make nearly perfect partners:

Iran, with its visions of empire, has oil money. Cash-hungry North Korea has nuclear technology, an outlaw willingness to conduct tests, and long experience in wielding its nuclear ventures to extort concessions from the U.S. and its allies.

Both countries are adept at spinning webs of front companies to dodge sanctions. Both are enriching uranium. The stage is set for North Korea, having shopped ever more sophisticated missiles to Iran, to perfect and deliver the warheads to go with them.

Troubling as all of this is, it gets worse: Strong evidence points to both countries’ participation in what Rosett calls “the evolving global webs of illicit proliferation activities.” Both countries were involved, for example, in the nuclear-proliferation network run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. These proliferation webs depend heavily on Chinese influence, and Beijing has facilitated these procurement efforts in multiple ways, whether as direct provider or middleman.

There is also compelling, if not yet confirmable, evidence that Iran and North Korea have shared expertise on tunnel construction for military purposes. In 1974, South Korean forces discovered a highly sophisticated system of massive tunnels located under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Equipped with railroads, electricity, and vehicle transports, it was 35,000 meters long.

Dmz tunnelvia WikipediaA map of four known tunnels under the border between North Korea and South Korea.

A generation later, in the wake of the Israeli — Hezbollah war of 2006, Israeli forces discovered large networks of tunnels close to the Israeli border that were extraordinarily similar to those constructed under the Korean DMZ. As part of its schemes to bring in foreign capital, North Korea in the past has been known to lend out its tunneling expertise for a price.

Ronen Bergman, a senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who defected, said, “Thanks to the presence of hundreds of Iranian engineers and technicians, and experts from North Korea who were brought in by Iranian diplomats . . . Hezbollah succeeded in building a 25-kilometer subterranean strip in South Lebanon.” Indeed, Beirut officials believe it likely that Iranian sources passed the tunnel-construction blueprints on to Hezbollah, having obtained them first from North Korea.

Gaza TunnelsREUTERS/Ibraheem Abu MustafaA Palestinian smuggler climbs down into a tunnel, temporarily closed by Hamas forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip April 14, 2010.

Barring an almost impossible coincidence, the tunnels in Lebanon were based on North Korean plans — meaning that either the North Koreans built the tunnels or Iran passed the plans on to Hezbollah. Either way, the tunnels episode makes clear how Iran and North Korea, already dangerous enough themselves, can serve as enablers of technology proliferation for still more dangerous, unpredictable third parties. In this case, the technology involved only tunnels. Next time, it might involve nukes.

Excerpted with permission from “The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War And America’s Crisis Of Leadership” by Douglas Schoen and Melik Kaylan. Excerpted with permission by Encounter Books. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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