March 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

Gauging the North Korea-Iran Relationship

March 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

Gauging the North Korea-Iran Relationship

A new report alleges that North Korea is helping Iran continue development of a nuclear weapon in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. If true, the allegations would mark a dangerous development in the two rogue states’ efforts to advance each other’s illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs, and would represent a significant violation of the deal.

A February 2016 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report noted: “there is no evidence that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other,” though it did note that the ballistic-missile relationship is “significant and meaningful.” That missile relationship was serious enough for the Obama administration to sanction Iran a month earlier, just a day after the nuclear deal was implemented. In so doing, Treasury noted that senior Iranian officials had worked with North Koreans for several years, and had traveled to Pyongyang for contract negotiations and to work on a missile component.

North Korea’s uranium enrichment program probably began in the late 1990s, a result of its previous ballistic-missile relationship with Pakistan. Thus, it is worth considering whether North Korea-Iran missile cooperation has similarly yielded nuclear cooperation.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is increasing at an alarming rate. Pyongyang in 2016 conducted two nuclear tests – its fourth and fifth overall – and information from those tests would be attractive to Tehran. Moreover, depending on how far along Pyongyang’s program is, Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges could be useful to it as well. The two sides could potentially exchange nuclear technology and knowledge as a method of payment, with Tehran even paying Pyongyang some of the $150 billion it received from the nuclear deal. On the other hand, Pyongyang desperately needs hard currency to sustain both its elites and strategic programs, and is vulnerable to increased U.S. pressure in response to its provocations.

What happens in North Korea rarely stays there, and Pyongyang has likely proliferated nuclear technology in secret to at least two countries: Syria and Libya. Likewise, a North Korea-Iran nuclear relationship would be difficult to detect. And while North Korea will not sell complete nuclear weapons or fissile material for nuclear weapons – as these are critical to the regime’s survival – it will sell other parts of its program, as well as its expertise.

Perhaps most disconcerting, there are no international mechanisms to detect scientific activity inside North Korea. The hermit kingdom controls information flow, especially on its strategic programs, and IAEA inspectors are not permitted access to its nuclear program.

For over 20 years, the U.S. has failed to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic-missile threat. Pyongyang-Tehran nuclear cooperation would be cause for even greater alarm.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and formerly a foreign policy fellow for Senator Marco Rubio and an official at the Departments of the Treasury and State. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero.


Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear Libya North Korea Syria