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.
“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 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.
It was its interest in North Korean missiles that prompted Iran to send a large team to witness the launch of Unha-3, the long-range North Korean missile that failed last week. The word Unha means “galaxy” and the number 3 indicates it’s the third launch of the same missile. Earlier versions were test-fired in August 1998 and April 2009.
“The SHIG team” – that is, the representatives of the Shadid Hemmat Industrial Group that manufactures the North’s missiles – “would want data to see how it was going,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “SHIG is responsible for ballistic missiles,” he says. “North Korea probably still sells things to Iran – components and technology."
As an example, Mr. Albright notes that Iran has problems in the guidance systems of its missiles” – one area the SHIG team may have wanted to study closely on the North Korean rocket.
For the Iranians, though, the results may well have been disappointing.
Aside from the fact that the rocket failed, analysts doubt if it was very sophisticated. The first stage of the rocket consisted of four Nodong missiles that had to be fired in precise unison, dropping off while the second stage and third stages were to go on before launching a satellite.
“In a missile program you have a lot of failures,” says Albright. The reason the first stage of the rocket consisted of four Nodongs was evidently to compensate for the inability of North Korean engineers to develop a large enough rocket motor to power the first stage with just one or two missiles.
Iranian engineers, while in North Korea, are believed to have wanted to join the team of scientists and technicians that North Korea said was studying “the causes of the failure” in the first stage.
What about nuclear programs?
Cooperation between Iran and North Korea reportedly extends beyond missiles to their nuclear programs – though analysts concede they don’t have proof. “There’s a reason for them to cooperate on gas centrifuges,” the key to enriching the uranium needed to produce electrical power or, at its highest stage of enrichment, to cause a nuclear blast.
“There are worries there could be a transfer of knowledge,” says Albright. “It could be either way.” For example, he says, “The Iranians have done better on carbon,” critical to producing the 3,000 centrifuges needed for a uranium bomb, while “the North Koreans have done better on design using very strong steel.”
Albright believes strong sanctions, imposed by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea’s second underground nuclear test in May 2009, and then strengthened by the UNSC on Monday, help to keep both North Korea and Iran from getting everything they need for nuclear weapons. He believes, however that North Korea gets around them by shipping components through China.
“I don’t think the Chinese are cooperating,” he says, but he doubts if the Chinese are blocking aircraft with components from flying over China, possibly stopping on the way for refueling at Chinese airports.
While Iran says it’s only enriched uranium to the 20 percent level needed for medical purposes, notably radiation, Albright says “it looks like” North Korea is “preparing for a third nuclear test.”
North Korea’s preparations for a possible nuclear test with a bomb made of highly enriched uranium, rather than the plutonium previously used for making the North’s nuclear devices, have to be of interest to Iran.
“It makes sense to get something going with North Korea,” he says. “There’s a growing suspicion,” he says, whatever they’re working on “might be nuclear,” though both countries deny having enriched uranium to weapons grade.