October 7, 2013 | Forbes
Iran’s Sequel to North Korea’s Nuclear Playbook
As world powers prepare for nuclear talks with Iran next week in Geneva, U.S. negotiators and their cohorts would do well to review the history of nuclear deals with another rogue state: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the United Nations last week, North Korea offers Iran a prime example of how a rogue state can parlay nuclear climbdown deals into time and opportunity to cheat — reaping benefits while still working toward nuclear weapons. In 2005, North Korea agreed to a widely hailed diplomatic deal to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and other concessions. A year later, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
Since then, rolling right over a much celebrated 2007 nuclear freeze deal, collecting aid and diplomatic concessions along the way, and surviving a father-son transition of despotic power, North Korea’s regime has conducted two more nuclear tests, in June, 2009 and February, 2013. In other words, the North Korean nuclear playbook didn’t just work for that first nuclear test in 2006. It is still working. North Korea’s people are hungry and oppressed, the Pyongyang regime is laboring under sanctions, but having cheated its way through a series of deals going all the way back to the nuclear freeze of the 1994 Agreed Framework under President Clinton, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un not only has a nuclear weapons program, but appears to be honing the weapons.
This warning is urgent. Not only does North Korea offer terror-sponsoring Iran a model of how to get away with going nuclear, but the two have plenty of direct dealings. Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, North Korea has been one of Iran’s closest allies. This partnership is based on a shared hostility toward the U.S. and other free societies, and has long been cemented by a neat match between North Korea’s weapons industry and need for money, and Iran’s oil wealth and desire for weapons.
This partnership was reflected not least in remarks to the U.N. General Assembly just last week by a North Korean diplomat, who called Israel a “cancer” in the Middle East. If anyone wonders why Pyongyang would take such a virulent interest in faraway Israel, the answer is that while Iran may be following North Korea’s nuclear playbook, North Korea is reading from Iran’s diplomatic script. On many fronts, from missile development to multilateral diplomacy, they have long been in cahoots.
And though it may be coincidence, not necessarily some tag team plot, it bears noting that while the U.S. is focused right now on talking with Iran, there are signs bubbling up in the background that North Korea is restarting its Yongbyon nuclear reactor — a source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Perhaps this is a case of rogue out-sourcing, auguring North Korean nuclear backup for Iran. Perhaps it is simply prelude to another round of the nuclear extortion with which North Korea for almost two decades has repeatedly shaken down the U.S. and its allies. Either way, given North Korea’s long entanglement with Iran, U.S. negotiators need to recognize that Iran’s nuclear projects may not stop at Iran’s borders.
Diplomatic dealings between the two are not reassuring. When Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani came to the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, he was fresh from a meeting in Tehran with North Korea’s titular head of state, Kim Yong Nam, who traveled to Tehran in August to attend Rouhani’s inauguration. During that visit, Kim met with Rouhani. Reporting on that meeting, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency rhapsodized about Rouhani’s venerable ties to the Pyongyang regime, citing Rouhani’s memories of a trip which according to KCNA he made to North Korea in the 1980s, during the era of its founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current tyrant Kim Jong Un. According to KCNA: “Recollecting with deep emotion the day when he had the honor of being received by the great Generalissimo Kim Il Sung 30 years ago, [Rouhani] stressed that the friendly and cooperative ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the DPRK would grow stronger in the future.” (From 1983-1988, during much of the Iran-Iraq war, Rouhani served as member of Iran’s Supreme Defense Council, and in 1985 began a six year stint as Commander of Iran’s Air Defense Force; during roughly that same period, North Korea began supplying Iran’s new Islamic Republic with weapons, including knock-offs of Soviet Scud missiles.)
For North Korea’s Kim Yong Nam, the visit to Rouhani this August was at least his second trip to Tehran within a year. In September, 2012, when Iran took over the three-year presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, Kim attended the celebratory NAM summit in Tehran. On that occasion, Iran and North Korea signed a scientific and technological cooperation agreement, which Iran’s PressTV news service summarized this July as including “the formation of joint scientific and technological laboratories, the exchange of scientific teams and the transfer of technology in the fields of information technology, energy, environment, agriculture and food.”
If that sounds like benign collaboration toward a cleaner, greener Iran and North Korea, it is worth noting that the signing of this deal was attended by such Iranian officials as the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, and Iran’s defense minister. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly praised the deal, seizing the occasion to reconfirm to Kim Yong Nam that Iran and North Korea have “common enemies.”
According to congressional testimony this past March from David Asher, a counterproliferation expert and former coordinator of the North Korea Working Group at the State Department, the 2012 scientific cooperation agreement between Iran and North Korea bears an ominous resemblance to a deal signed in 2002 between North Korea and Iran’s close ally, Syria. That deal, said Asher, “was the keystone for the commencement of covert nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria.” By 2007, that cooperation had produced a nearly complete secret nuclear reactor in Syria, built with North Korea’s help, as a copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor — with no apparent purpose except to produce plutonium as fuel for nuclear weapons. That reactor was dismantled not by way of diplomacy, but because Israel took the risk of destroying it, in September, 2007, with an air strike.
For more highlights of the North Korean nuclear playbook, it’s worth sampling some of the dodges that followed North Korea’s 2007 nuclear freeze deal. That deal grew out of the same Six-Party Talks that spawned the 2005 North Korea nuclear climbdown that was followed by a 2006 nuclear test. The six parties to this protracted negotiating process were North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. — then under the Bush administration.
The U.N. Security Council responded to North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test with a sanctions resolution. In short order, the six parties returned to the negotiating table. In February, 2007, just four months after North Korea’s first nuclear test, the negotiators, with fanfare, announced a new deal. North Korea’s regime had agreed to a phased arrangement in which it would first freeze the nuclear installations at its Yongbyon complex, to be followed by the end of the year with a declaration of North Korea nuclear programs, and the disabling of all the country’s nuclear facilities. In exchange, North Korea would receive aid, security assurances, and diplomatic rehabilitation, including bilateral talks with the U.S., aimed toward normalization of relations, and the lifting of sanctions.
No sooner was the deal announced than North Korea balked, demanding the return of $25 million frozen in accounts of Macau’s Banco Delta Asia. This was a bank that the U.S. Treasury, alleging ties to North Korean government rackets that included the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, had designated as a “primary money laundering concern.” North Korea insisted that the funds be returned not in cash, but via the banking system. Eager to consummate the Six-Party nuclear deal, the U.S. special envoy to the talks, Chris Hill, argued that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing the deal for a mere $25 million. The State Department summoned Treasury to help move the money back to North Korea. Persuading banks to handle the allegedly tainted funds ultimately entailed intervention by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which then routed the money to a Russian bank, whence it arrived in a North Korean account. According to a Congressional Research Service report dated Sept. 10, 2007, a key result of this shuffle appeared to be “a collapse of the Bush administration’s anti-counterfeiting policy toward North Korea.”
That glitch consumed almost four months. North Korean then shut down its Yongbyon reactor, but missed the deadline for the agreed-upon declaration of all nuclear programs. What transpired instead was nuclear farce. A 2013 CRS report, summarizing some of the events, records that in 2007 North Korea gave the U.S. a sample of aluminum tubing, proposing to prove that this equipment was not being used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons; the U.S. “found traces of enriched uranium on the tubing.”
In 2008, amid renewed U.S. concerns that North Korea had a covert uranium enrichment program, Ambassador Hill testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea had provided a letter saying “They do not now and will not in the future have a highly enriched uranium program.” But when North Korea finally sent the U.S. 18,000 pages of documents on its nuclear program, U.S. analysts found traces of highly enriched uranium on the documents themselves.
It also emerged that concurrent with agreeing to the 2007 deal for a nuclear freeze, declaration and dismantling, North Korea had carried on with its secret help for Syria’s construction of a copy, by the Euphrates River, of the Yongbyon reactor. It was unclear whether this was an attempt to out-source to the Middle East the plutonium production North Korea was promising to abjure at home, or whether it was simply a well-serviced North Korean deal to provide Syria’s Assad regime with fuel for nuclear weapons. Either way, so eager was the Bush administration to cling to the North Korea nuclear deal that after the Israelis destroyed the nearly complete Syrian reactor with an air strike, U.S. authorities waited more than seven months before informing the public in April, 2008, that North Korea had been helping Syria build a copy of the Yongbyon reactor.
Disputes grew, as North Korea refused to allow for full verification of its nuclear activities. By the end of 2008, the entire deal collapsed. But by the time it went, North Korea had raked in aid, including fuel shipments; loosened the grip of sanctions; and paid no serious penalty for its bad faith clandestine efforts to provide Syria’s Assad regime with an entire illicit nuclear reactor. In international circles, North Korea’s brutally repressive and duplicitous regime was graced with a legitimacy it in no way deserved. The New York Philharmonic visited North Korea and performed for the Pyongyang elite. Hill welcomed North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan to New York, and treated him to drinks at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In October, 2008, in a final effort to revive the collapsing Six-Party deal, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The following year, in April, 2009, North Korea greeted the new Obama administration with a long-range missile test. President Obama responded that the nations of the world must stand together to persuade North Korea to change course: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
Two months later, in June, 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. In November, 2010, North Korea invited U.S. nuclear physicist and former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfriend Hecker, to the Yongbyon complex, and showed him a centrifuge facility built there for the uranium enrichment that Pyongyang two years earlier had denied it was doing, or would ever do. This past June, when North Korea shortly after its third nuclear test proposed high-level talks with the U.S., the White House was rightly skeptical. “We will judge North Korea by its actions, and not its words,” a National Security Council spokeswoman told Reuters. That same rule must apply doubly to Iran, if there is to be any escape from a full-blown Iranian nuclear sequel to the North Korean playbook.
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.