April 10, 2013 | Forbes

The Pyongyang-Tehran Proliferation Playbook

April 10, 2013 | Forbes

The Pyongyang-Tehran Proliferation Playbook

Clearly the dangers posed by North Korea reside not only in its arsenal, but in the precedents Pyongyang keeps setting for just how much a rogue regime can get away with in this era of receding American power. As North Korea hones its missile reach and nuclear abilities — while threatening to incinerate Seoul, Washington and U.S. bases in the Pacific — it appears the limits of such behavior have yet to be discovered. That spectacularly dangerous message is surely being read with interest by other anti-American regimes, especially by North Korea’s chief partner in proliferation, Iran.

Iran’s interest in the North Korean playbook goes back some three decades, to the early days of the Islamic Republic. It extends beyond a shared interest in military hardware, to a mutually reinforcing policy of threatening the U.S. A signal event in this relationship took place in 1989, shortly after the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, in which North Korea supplied weapons, including knock-offs of Soviet Scud missiles, to Iran.

In May of 1989, Iran’s then-president Ali Khamenei paid a visit to Pyongyang, then ruled by Kim Il Sung, grandfather of North Korea’s current tyrant, Kim Jong Un. The gist of Khamenei’s message during that visit is important, because less than a month later Iran’s revolutionary tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini died, and Khamenei took over as Iran’s Supreme Leader — which he remains to this day.

During his 1989 trip to North Korea, Khamenei was full of praise for North Korea’s heavily armed hostility toward the U.S. In a statement to Kim Il Sung, broadcast by Tehran Radio, and reported at the time by the Associated Press, Khamenei said, “Anti-Americanism can be the most important factor in our cooperation with the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.” He added, admiringly, “You have proved in Korea that you have the power to confront America.”

Plenty has changed in the world, but the anti-American alliance between Iran and North Korea has endured. In 2009, according to a laudatory account by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, Iran held a ceremony at its embassy in Pyongyang to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the meeting between Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and North Korea’s late Great Leader Kim. In 2012, when a high-level North Korean delegation to Tehran signed a Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Iran, fraught with nuclear overtones, Khamenei gave his public blessing to the deal — citing a shared need to defy “common enemies.”

Underpinning this cozy anti-American axis are decades of weapons development and trade. Iran has the oil money that cash hungry North Korea craves for its weapons programs, and North Korea has the willingness to pioneer ever more dangerous means of threatening America and its allies.

Following unconfirmed press reports of Iranians being present at North Korea’s third nuclear test this February, the news has been full of stories about the North Korea-Iran axis of proliferation. But some particularly horrifying information can be found in a 2011 paper published by the Seoul-based Institute of National Security Strategy, authored by Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist formerly with the U.S. Congressional Research Service. In this paper, Niksch estimated that North Korea’s regime was earning “between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion annually from its multi-faceted collaboration with Iran (including support for the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas).”

Niksch summarized the signs that North Korea quite likely acquired designs for uranium-fueled nuclear warheads from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan’s laboratories, where North Korean experts were believed to have worked for at least four years after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, “including work in developing and producing the uranium nuclear warheads” for Pakistan’s Ghauri missile (which is a copy of North Korea’s Nodong missile). Niksch went on to summarize open source accounts of Iranian nuclear technicians in North Korea, and North Koreans in Iran — including a 2011 report by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun that more than 200 North Korean missile and nuclear technicians were in Iran, working at sites such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility

So, along with a booming business in the nitty-gritty of missile and nuclear proliferation, what might Iran in all its intimacy with North Korea be learning from the Pyongyang policy playbook, to which Khamenei over a span of more than two decades has been devoting praise?

Above all, there is the lesson that in defiance of the U.S. superpower and its allies, North Korea has by now conducted three nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009 and 2013 — and the U.S. has taken no direct military action to stop them, or to definitively preclude yet more. So it is possible to get away with it. There will be sanctions, potentially even to the point of real economic pain. But there are ways to work together with other wayward states to get around such obstacles, and carry on with proliferation.

Then there’s the lesson that nuclear weapons, or even the credible threat of making them, can translate into profitable nuclear extortion. North Korea’s nuclear ventures are part of a trajectory in which elaborately negotiated nuclear freeze deals, in 1994 and 2007, have served as pit stops for North Korea to regroup and shake down the U.S. and its allies. In both cases, Pyongyang collected aid and concessions, cheated on the deals and emerged as a worse threat than before. Ergo, for rogue regimes, adept at playing the game, nuclear extortion pays.

Then there’s the case of North Korea’s collaboration with Syria in building a secret copy on the Euphrates River of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. That Syrian reactor, nearing completion, was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007. But U.S. diplomats were so desperate at the time to shore up a nuclear freeze deal with North Korea that for more than six months after the strike, well into 2008, the Bush administration hushed up information about what had happened, including North Korea’s help with both the design and procurement of materials for Syria’s building of the reactor.

In that instance, Syria lost its investment. North Korea lost some of its on-site personnel.  But there was no further penalty. Instead, in late 2008, in the terminal stages of the collapsing 2007 nuclear freeze deal, the U.S. made a last-ditch attempt to woo North Korea by taking it off the U.S. list of terror sponsoring states. When President Obama took office in 2009, he began by courting Syria. North Korea, for its part, welcomed him with its second nuclear test, and got slapped with more sanctions — which did not prevent a third test. Among the lessons: rogue states that buddy up with North Korea’s nuclear program might just stand to benefit from North Korea’s well-practiced nuclear extortion racket.

As for North Korea’s latest barrage of threats to irradiate Americans and South Koreans, North Korea’s novice tyrant Kim Jong Un –whatever his exact role or intentions in this drama — has so far reaped a bonanza. Two years ago, almost no one outside of North Korea-watching circles had heard of him. Now he has become a household name around the globe. North Korea is being discussed hither and yon as a nuclear power — bizarre and opaque, to be sure — but a force to be reckoned with. Tehran, with its bomb program, is surely studying the scene.

Where is this going? Twenty years ago, when America had just won the Cold War, there was a lot of talk about the shaping of a new world order, full of hope that peace and freedom would unfurl around the globe. That period is now looking like prelude to a darkening 21st century, in which the likes of North Korea and Iran are pioneering a very different set of rules.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

Read in Forbes


Iran Iran Sanctions North Korea