North Korean spokesmen reacted furiously last week to claims by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Pyongyang is supplying weapons technology to Iran and Syria. Representatives of the regime of Kim Jong-Il described Lieberman as an “imbecile.” The official Korean Central News Agency in a memorable phrase accused the foreign minister in an official statement of “faking up sheer lies.”
The indignant denials notwithstanding, recent studies indicate that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, is indeed playing a crucial but little remarked upon role in facilitating the arming of the Iran-led regional axis, including in the area of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean role is multifaceted, and evidence has emerged of direct links to terror organizations such as Hizbullah and extensive strategic relations with both Iran and Syria.
A recent study by Christina Lin, a former US Department Defense official
and specialist on China, looked into North Korea’s strategic
partnership with Iran. Lin noted that North Korea has been described as
the “the most important single leak” in the international
anti-proliferation effort in the Middle East.
Iranian-North Korean strategic cooperation dates back to the first days
of the Islamic Republic. Its basis is clear. Iran needs access to
advanced military technology to underwrite its regional ambitions. Its
main suppliers are Russia and China. But both these countries are active
members of the international system, and hence are to some degree
constrained by international pressures. North Korea, on the other hand,
is an isolated country, indifferent to Western attempts to control the
access of Middle East radicals to advanced armaments.
North Korean assistance plays a vital role in the Iranian missile
program. Its flagship Shihab missile project is a product of the
relationship. The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile
series. Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines
from North Korea in 1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3. The
Shihab-3, which has a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel
More recently, Iranian officials were present at the testing of the
advanced Taepodong-2 missile in North Korea in July 2006. This missile
is the basis for the Iranian development of the Shihab-6, which has not
yet been tested. These are intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic
missile systems, thought to have a range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.
One report has also suggested that Iran and North Korea are jointly
seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the Nodong/Shihab-3, which
would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.
In addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the
presence of North Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in
attempts to develop a nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range
ballistic missiles such as the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was
cited by Agence France Presse.
The North Korean strategic link with Iran is not limited to Teheran.
Rather, evidence suggests that it extends to cooperation with other,
more junior members of the Iran-led regional alliance. Thus, Iranian
defector Ali Reza Asghari is reported to have confirmed that Iran helped
finance the participation of North Korean personnel in the Syrian
plutonium reactor at al-Kibar destroyed by Israel in September 2007.
Iranian scientists were also present at the site, the goal of which was
to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Three North Korean scientists were reported to have been among the dead
following an explosion at a Syrian chemical weapons facility near Aleppo
in July 2007, suggesting North Korean involvement in other areas of the
WMD endeavors of Iran and its allies.
And one must not forget also the extensive evidence which has emerged to
suggest a North Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah
underground tunnel network which played a vital role in the 2006 Second
Lebanon War. The network, according to the Intelligence Online Web site,
was created by Hizbullah militants trained in the construction of
underground facilities by North Korean experts. The tunnels in Lebanon
are said to bear a striking resemblance to similar facilities discovered
by the South Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two
So despite North Korean official anger at Lieberman’s remarks, the
evidence is well-documented and overwhelming. Pyongyang is a vital
factor in the arming of the Iran-led strategic axis in the Middle East.
But why is North Korea playing this role? There is, after all, little
ideological common ground between the Shi’ite Islamists in Teheran and
Baalbek and the servants of the bizarre “Juche” philosophy used by Kim
Jong-il to justify his dictatorship.
The factors underpinning North Korean support for Iran and its allies
are as simple as they are powerful: common enemies and hard cash. As a
known rogue WMD proliferator, and as perhaps the most repressive regime
currently on the planet, North Korea faces diplomatic and economic
isolation. Like Iran, it is the subject of UN Security Council sanctions
because of its nuclear program. Iran is prepared to pay good money for
military and scientific assistance, and to underwrite Pyongyang’s own
research and development programs, from which it stands to benefit.
North Korea and Iran play a similar role in their respective regions of
opposition and subversion toward the US and its allies. A cynic might
add that the tendency of both regimes to indulge in the faking up of
sheer lies is a further point of commonality between them.
These firm foundations mean that – short of action taken to disturb it –
the friendship between the Kim Jong-il dictatorship in North Korea and
the Iran-led “resistance bloc” in the Middle East is likely to flourish
and continue to mutually benefit both partners in the years ahead.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in
International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.