By Franklin Lamb
So just how and when did Iran acquire three North Korea nuclear weapons in addition to a suspected ‘dirty bomb’ freebee for Hezbollah?
It is widely agreed that Pyongyang has dramatically deepened its partnership with Tehran’s ‘Axis of Resistance.’ This according to the 16 agency US Intelligence Community as well as some Asian powers. All are said to believe that the DRNK-IROI partnership seeks the ability to launch nuclear weapons into their perceived enemies. Another recent report has it that North Korea has been benefiting from technical assistance from Russia and Pakistan and sharing some of it with Iran while committing about 25 percent of North Korea’s entire gross domestic product to its nuclear weapons program and much of that to missiles.
It’s likely not the case that either Pyongyang or Tehran is anxious to start a nuclear war which would pulverize both countries. Rather both seek ‘respect’ as a member of Iran’s Parliament recently explained to this observer. In practical terms ‘respect’ comes from the ability to launch nuclear weapons globally such that no country is able to challenge North Korean or Iranian geo-strategic goals, the key pillars of which are a united Korea administered from Pyongyang and a return to “Persian Empire” quality regional hegemony. The Parliamentarian from Tehran did not publicly agree with my definition of “respect.”
The deliveries of the nuclear warheads have been a while coming. A brief overview:
More than thirteen years ago, in January 2004, the director of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center handed an American visitor from Oregon a sealed glass jar tightly packed with plutonium, apparently to convince the skeptical fellow that his country possessed a nuclear deterrent but only to be used if threatened.
In December 2012, North Korea completed its first successful launch of a long-range ballistic missile, confirming American fears that the so-called hermit kingdom had finally acquired the technology to pose a threat to American shores. Critically, according to Asian policy experts, “North Korea’s sudden success on December 12th was not the result of good fortune but rather was the fruition of its increasing instructional cooperation with Iran.”
In 2013, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Iranian missile technicians from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group traveled to Pyongyang to work on an 80-ton rocket booster. According to the report, “The booster is believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be intended for a new long-range missile or space launch vehicle that could be used to carry nuclear warheads, and could be exported to Iran in the future.” Were Iran to acquire this technology, its ballistic missile program would be transformed from a regional into a global threat.
To make the same point last week, Pyongyang lofted a missile 2,800 miles into space and declared it had a nuclear-tipped missile that could destroy much of the United States so please back off and show us some “respect”. Within 90 minutes, countless Iranian basij and IRGC types surfaced in Tehran’s central Azadi Square and chanted, what else? “Death to America the Great Satan!”
The Pentagon estimates that the DRNK has approximately 200 launchers able to fire on short notice a variety of short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles. According to the Washington Post, citing the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Kim’s arsenal likely includes as 80 nuclear weapons. But other IC and Asian intelligence agencies believe his number of nuclear weapons is likely higher. But as of today, Kim cannot deliver them with the precision he seeks and is preassembly aware after the first one is fired that his country will largely cease to exist. Ditto Iran.
Iran is currently in negotiations to acquire North Korea’s longest-range ICBM’s to counter Israeli and American threats. This, as pressure mounts given mixed signals emanating from other nuclear arsenals, which given the right cash incentive, may well cooperate with the growing number of Iranian detractors, Arabs, and Sunni Muslims globally among others. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has reportedly rejected DRNK offers to sell Iran older varieties like the SCUD missile, which have a range of 200 to 600 miles, or the No Dong missile which can reach as far as 800 miles.
Rather, what Iran urgently wants to buy are the Musudan and KN-11, which have a range of approximately 2,000 miles. In addition, Iran wants Kim Joun Un sell it the intercontinental ballistic missile that was tested successfully twice last month, the Hwasong-14 and 15 (based on the Soviet Rd-250 missile) which western intelligence agencies including NATO specialists and Asian allies believe puts Israel in very close “we can’t miss” range.
North Korea also claims that both intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-14 and 15, when topped with a “super-large heavy warhead,” can strike the US mainland. The country’s state media made the announcement hours after leader Kim Jong Un last month ordered the launch of the Hwasong-15 missile, which reached the highest altitude ever recorded by a North Korean missile. State news agency KCNA called its newest missile “the most powerful ICBM” and said it “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development. After the launch, Kim announced that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” The US IC reportedly agrees that the DRNK has reached a major milestone in its nuclear program by creating a miniaturized nuclear warhead which the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 can carry and accurately target selected localities.
Any probative evidence of DRNK-IROI partnership to achieve nuclear arsenals?
A few points. With respect to Iran’s continuing involvement with North Korea’s nuclear program, there is growing speculation based partly on the recent occurrences noted below. U.S. intelligence agencies, according to US Senate Intelligence sources, have photographs and tapes of scores of Iranian defense officials living for weeks at a time in Pyongyang. It is suspected that these Iranian visitors along with their hosts are jointly working on nuclear technological advances. These increasing contacts are cause for alarm according to a Senate Intelligence Committee because they suggest that Iran is indeed racing to develop nuclear weapons– but mainly inside Korea not in Iran– due to UN oversight of Iran.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), it was back in the late 2000s, the CIA intensified its monitoring of North Korean cooperation with Iran’s ballistic missile programs labeling them, “ongoing and significant.” The CRS concluded that while Iran had likely exceeded North Korea’s ability to develop, test, and build ballistic missiles, Tehran still relies, despite its denials, on Pyongyang for certain materials for producing Iranian ballistic missiles despite Iran’s denials.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme allied commander, in an interview on 12/17/2017, argued to AM 970 Radio host John Catsimtidis in New York that “North Korea is likely receiving outside help from Iran as it races to develop its weapons arsenal, given how fast it’s moving. “There is also much cooperation between Iran and North Korea, which we know has occurred in this nuclear warhead race.”
The three DRNK Nuclear warheads and the ‘dirty bomb’ deliveries to Iran allegedly took place during the Spring of 2017. They were transported under heavy guard from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on four separate North Korean regularly scheduled passenger flights of its Air Koryo airline to Iran Air at Russia’s Vladivostok airport in Russia. Whether anyone in Russa knew what the cargo bays held is weak speculation. The U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned Air Koryo in December 2016 for financially aiding the Kim regime and its ballistic missile program. According to the IC, the Nuclear warheads were then forwarded to Tehran via Russia’s state carrier, Aeroflot, flying through Chinese airspace. All events being egregious violation of U.N. sanctions that prohibited Iran at the time from “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” and North Korea from “exporting nuclear and missile technology.”
After the claimed nuclear warheads transfer, reports have documented that both countries have increased the holding of “high-level meetings,” to expand the “depth” of their military ties and exploring further “military cooperation.” This August, Kim reiterated his support for working with Iran, stating, “Iran and North Korea share a mutual enemy, the United States. We firmly support Iran on its (Iran’s) stance on missile development.”
Mr. Daniel Coats, US Director of National Intelligence testified before Congress on 5/11/2017, shortly after the claimed nuclear transfer, that “North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate its willingness to proliferate dangerous technologies.” Not long after, Iran’s President Rouhani threatened that Tehran could restart its nuclear program within a matter of hours. His statement was chimed in with the IRGC claim that it may “expand and continue with more speed” its ballistic missile program. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran´s Supreme Leader, claims to have earlier set the maximum range of the Iran’s missiles as 2000 kilometers. This includes Israel as part of the Middle East region where Iran’s perceived enemies are located, including American military bases.
Several of the 16-member US Intelligence agencies allege that senior Iranian regime officials have been flooding into North Korea to observe its six nuclear warhead tests. Chief among these officials, is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian general whom the UN has accused of working closely with Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani on secret nuclear weapons research. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say these accusations cannot be ruled out, so all known contacts between the two regimes need to be scrutinized closely.
Many of the increasing numbers of North Koreans visiting Iran are from defense industries or secretive financial bodies that report directly to Kim Jong-un, including Offices 39 and 99 of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea.
In late 2016 U.S. authorities reported that missile technicians from one of Iran’s largest defense companies, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, had traveled to North Korea to help develop an eighty-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles. One of the company’s top officials, Sayyed Javad Musavi, has allegedly worked in tandem with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), which the United States and UN have sanctioned for being a central player in procuring equipment for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. For example, Shahid Hemmat is claimed to have illegally shipped valves, electronics, and measuring equipment to KOMID for use in ground testing of space-launch vehicles and liquid-propellant ballistic missiles.
Early last August, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s number two political leader and head of its legislature, flew from Pyongyang to Tehran supposedly for a few days to attend the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani What alarmed Washington and NATO was the length of Kim Yong-nam’s visit. North Korean state media claimed he was only in Iran for three days, but Iranian state media claimed two weeks, and that Kim was accompanied by a large delegation of Korean scientists. Kim had last visited Tehran in 2012 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement Conference. But did not attend the events associated with that conference, instead focusing on signing a bilateral scientific cooperation agreement with Iran’s then President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, that agreement was identical to the one Pyongyang inked with Syria in 2002. Israel bombed a building in eastern Syria that the United States and UN believe was a nearly operational North Korean-built nuclear reactor for Iran’s use. One of the Iranian officials who attended the 2012 gathering with Kim was Atomic Energy Organization chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, who was sanctioned by Washington and the UN for his alleged role in nuclear weapons development. Kim also held a string of bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, many from countries that have been significant buyers of North Korean weapons in recent decades, including Zimbabwe, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia.
This past September at the request of the CIA and key Congressional leaders, the White House ordered an urgent intensive search for any potential North Korea-Iran bilateral nuclear collaboration. This is years after officials in Washington, Asia, and the Middle East who track the relationship indicate that Pyongyang and Tehran already announced plans to jointly develop their ballistic missile systems and other military/scientific programs.
Certain DRNK-IROI meetings that have gone unreported in state media are of even more concern to Washington and its allies. even more worrisome for allied governments. U.S. and South Korean intelligence have documented a study and increasing number of Iranian and North Korean officials visiting each other seeking to jointly develop their nuclear arsenal and ICBM delivery systems as quickly as possible.
Over the same period, U.S. intelligence agencies have spotted dozens of Iranian defense officials spending weeks at a time in Pyongyang, raising the specter that they are sharing nuclear technological advances with each other. “All of these contacts need to be better understood” a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer opined that Iran is indeed reaching to develop nuclear weapons, but in Korea not in Iran due to NATO and UN oversight in the IROI.
North Korea has become a critical partner in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” which Tehran developed to replace US influence in the Middle East. Pyongyang is also Iran’s main arms partner in Syria as an important supplier of arms and equipment to Iran’s most important Arab ally, Syria’s Assad regime. According to current and former U.S. officials, Iranian funded Houthi have also been supplied with weapons from North Korea as it seeks to replace the current government in Yemen.
Several of the 16-member US Intelligence agencies allege that senior Iranian regime officials have frequently visited North Korea to observe and discuss with their counterparts, its six recent nuclear weapons tests. Chief among these officials, is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian general whom the UN has accused of working closely with Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani on secret nuclear weapons research. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say these accusations cannot be ruled out, so all known contacts between the two regimes need to be scrutinized closely.
Meanwhile, this week, Mark S. Kirk, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, has joined in a new campaign by the pro-Israel group, United Against Nuclear Iran and is urging President Trump, whose ear he is said to have, to get tough with Iran and North Korea. Kirk and his friends are arguing to the White House and Congress that both must follow through on Trump’s promise to impose further sanctions on those found to have helped Iran and North Korea share military technology. According to United Against a Nuclear Iran, the administration must also order the Pentagon to intercept and destroy ICBMs fired from either country in the direction of the U.S. or our allies in the Western Hemisphere.
Wrote Kirk recently, “It’s time for America to show that our rhetoric in response to rogue states is matched with concrete action.”