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Why Iranian engineers attended North Korea's failed rocket launch

Iranian rocket specialists were at the launch of North Korea's failed rocket test last week, according to South Korean reports. North Korea and Iran have long cooperated on long-range missiles.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / April 18, 2012

A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang, April 8. Iranian rocket engineers attended the launch of North Korea's failed rocket test last week, according to South Korean reports.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

A dozen representatives of the company that manufactures Iran’s missiles and satellites had ringside seats at North Korea's failed rocket launch last week, according to South Korean media. Analysts see their presence as the latest evidence of the relationship between Iran and North Korea’s cooperation on missile and nuclear programs.

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“North Korea and Iran are in close cooperation about long-range missiles,” says Baek Seung-joo, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “There is the high possibility they sell nuclear technology to each other. At least their people exchange information.”

The relationship between officials and scientists in Tehran and Pyongyang – opposite poles of what then-President George W. Bush labeled an “axis of evil” – dates back to the 1990s, when both countries were getting deeply involved in developing nuclear technology along with the missiles capable of carrying warheads to distant targets.

The differences in programs

The programs between the two countries diverge but share common goals that are essentially hostile toward the United States and its most important regional allies, Israel, South Korea, and Japan.

The differences, say analysts here and in Washington may not be significant. North Korea already has nuclear warheads while Iran denies it plans to make them. Iran has launched satellites while North Korea claims to have done so but has not. North Korea has developed long-range missiles, including the one that failed last week, while Iran has focused on advanced versions of middle-range missiles capable of reaching Israel.

“Iran in most respects is a larger, more sophisticated country,” observes Greg Thielmann, formerly with the State Department and now senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington. “They have a lot more resources. The Iranians have conducted a lot of missile tests. North Korean testing is much less frequent.”

What the North contributes to Iran

Although generally behind Iran technically and scientifically, and suffering from far more severe economic problems, North Korea contributed to Iran’s program by exporting its mid-range Nodong missiles, originally based on Soviet technology, more than 10 years ago.

“This was always a commercial relationship on the part of North Korea,” says Mr. Thielmann, former director of strategic, proliferation, and military affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

“Iran wanted to adapt these missiles and make them their own,” adds Thielmann.

In fact, Iranian scientists and engineers did just that, producing Shahab missiles capable of delivering warheads to targets in Israel.

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