June 23, 2014 | The Wall Street Journal
Iran Could Outsource Its Nuclear-Weapons Program To North Korea
As the Iran nuclear talks grind toward a soft July 20 deadline in Vienna, U.S. negotiators and their partners seem oblivious to a loophole that could render any agreement meaningless. Tehran could outsource the completion of a bomb to its longtime ally, North Korea.
As a venue for secretly completing and testing a nuclear bomb, North Korea would be ideal. North Korea is the only country known to have tested any nuclear bombs since India and Pakistan both performed underground tests in 1998. Despite wide condemnation, it has gotten away with three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Pyongyang threatened to carry out a fourth test in March, which it said would take an unspecified “new form.” North Korea's first test was plutonium-based. The composition of the next two remains unconfirmed, but in 2010 North Korea unveiled a uranium-enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. If North Korea's next test is uranium-based, that could be neatly compatible with Iran's refusal at the bargaining table to give up its thousands of centrifuges, which could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
After North Korea's Feb. 12, 2013, nuclear test, there were a number of media reports that Iranian officials had flown in for the detonation. At a State Department background press briefing following a round of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna this February, I asked a senior U.S. administration official what is being done to address such issues. That official ducked the question, saying only that the U.S. “is always concerned about reports of shared technology and proliferation of technology and of nuclear weapons technology.” Declining to talk about specifics, the official described North Korea as “an ongoing concern all on its own.”
But the pieces have long been in place for nuclear collaboration between the two countries. North Korea and Iran are close allies, drawn together by decades of weapons deals and mutual hatred of America and its freedoms. Weapons-hungry Iran has oil; oil-hungry North Korea makes weapons. North Korea has been supplying increasingly sophisticated missiles and missile technology to Iran since the 1980s, when North Korea hosted visits by Hasan Rouhani (now Iran's president) and Ali Khamenei (Iran's supreme leader since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989).
North Korea and Iran were both part of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, which spread nuclear blueprints and material among its clients until it was exposed by the U.S. a decade ago. In July 2013, a Pentagon report on global missile threats warned that “North Korea has an ambitious ballistic missile development program and has exported missiles and missile technology to other countries, including Iran and Pakistan.” On April 11, 2013, nuclear expert David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified to Congress that given the Iranian-North Korean cooperation on missile delivery systems, the lessons for Iran of North Korea's work to deploy nuclear warheads on its missiles are “apparent.”
For both countries, versed in dodging sanctions, the illicit networks run through China, Pyongyang's patron and a hub of illicit procurement. In April the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for help in apprehending a Chinese national, Li Fangwei, accusing him of running a sanctions-violating international procurement network out of China that has sold Iran both missile and nuclear-related materials. The U.S. has asked China to shut down this network since at least 2006, to no avail.
In February of this year, when Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and foreign minister, Javad Zarif, returned to Tehran from the first round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, one of his first meetings was with a visiting North Korean deputy foreign minister. Iran's Fars News Agency reported that the meeting was devoted to “bolstering and reinvigorating the two countries' bilateral ties,” as well as mutually assuring each other of their right to “peaceful nuclear technology.” Less than five weeks later North Korea issued a threat to conduct its fourth test of a nuclear bomb.
North Korea has a record of proliferating nuclear technology even in the midst of its own nuclear climb-down agreements. In February 2007, at the Beijing-hosted six-party talks, North Korea agreed to shut down the plutonium-producing reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. In exchange, it reaped aid and U.S. concessions that greatly eased sanctions.
Meanwhile, North Korea was quietly helping Syria build a secret copy of the Yongbyon reactor, near a remote area called Al Kibar, on the Euphrates River. The project had been going on for years. North Korea helped with the design and by using its networks to help procure materials. The Syrian reactor was nearing completion with no visible purpose except to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons when the Israelis destroyed it with an airstrike in September 2007.
The Bush administration was so eager to salvage a deal to freeze North Korea's nuclear program that it waited until April 24, 2008, to confirm the nature of the Israeli target, finally disclosing that “the Syrians constructed this reactor for the production of plutonium with the assistance of the North Koreans.” Instead of penalizing Pyongyang, the U.S. offered further concessions, taking North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea made a Potemkin gesture of blowing up an irrelevant cooling tower at Yongbyon but refused to provide the promised full access to its nuclear program. The nuclear-freeze deal collapsed entirely by the end of 2008. In May 2009 North Korea carried out its second nuclear test. In 2013 it conducted a third test and restarted its Yongbyon reactor, alongside the uranium-enrichment facility it had divulged in 2010.
Were Iranian officials present at North Korea's 2013 nuclear test, or for that matter the earlier ones? Perhaps. But that may not be the relevant question. According to Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, all they'd need is the resulting data on a thumb drive.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.