(CNSNews.com) – A new report assessing the security challenges posed by North Korea draws fresh attention to two-way collaboration between the Stalinist state and Iran on developing long-range missiles designed to carry a nuclear payload.
The report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank, due for release in Washington on Monday, evaluates North Korea’s non-conventional and missile programs as well as its conventional forces, internal dynamics including those relating to the leadership succession, and various scenarios for eventual Korean unification.
The report indicates that Iranian missile development is steaming ahead, with the Islamic republic developing ever more sophisticated weapons.
While North Korea is taking advantage of Iranian technology, Iran is benefiting from Pyongyang’s advances in uranium-enrichment equipment, it says. The West suspects Iran is working on a nuclear weapons capability, under the cover of a nuclear energy program that Tehran insists is for solely peaceful purposes.
According to Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the IISS’ non-proliferation and disarmament program, North Korea helped Libya and Syria to take forward nuclear weapons programs and may do the same for Iran and Burma.
(Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2003 negotiated a deal with the U.S. and Britain renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programs and handed over nuclear bombmaking technology including thousands of centrifuges; Syria’s alleged facilities were destroyed in an Israeli bombing in 2007, and the U.N. nuclear watchdog recently referred the Syrian activities to the U.N. Security Council.)
The IISS report says estimates of North Korea’s plutonium stockpile range from 4-12 bombs’ worth
“It cannot be confidently said that North Korea has developed reliable, deliverable nuclear weapons,” it argues. “Nevertheless, it will eventually be able to develop a warhead capable of fitting on a ballistic missile with satisfactory re-entry technology, especially if it conducts further nuclear tests to refine its weapon design.”
The report says that despite having limited indigenous missile production capabilities, North Korea “continues to show considerable interest in developing a satellite-launch capability, as well as longer-range ballistic missiles, possibly including an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]. North Korea has the wherewithal to develop these systems if it so decides.”
‘Iran, North Korea already have ICBM technology’
With Iran’s own missile development progressing, it would be an obvious source of help for North Korea in this area.
After Iran early this month held a 10-day military exercise called Great Prophet 6, during which it fired a number of missiles with claimed ranges that could threaten Israel as well as U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, a former head of Israel’s missile defense agency warned that Iran had overtaken North Korea in the development of sophisticated long-range missiles.
“The Iranians’ missile program is running ahead, and the moment they have a nuclear weapon, they will have the means to launch it,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Uzi Rubin as saying on July 14.
Another recent warning about the threat posed by both rogue states came from a top Russian missile technology expert.
In an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant on July 6 Yuri Solomonov, until recently the head of Russia’s leading strategic ballistic missile facility, disputed the official defense ministry position about North Korea and Iran not posing a potential missile threat.
Both countries already possessed the technology to develop functioning ICBMs, he was quoted as telling the paper.
With missile development high on the military agendas of North Korea and Iran, and both regimes subjected to arms-related sanctions, reports of collaboration between them come as little surprise. A missile partnership appears in fact to have been in place since at least the early 1990s.
When North Korea in May 1993 tested its medium-range Nodong missile, Iranian experts attended the launch, according to media reports at the time. Iran subsequently developed the Shahab-3, testing it in 1998 with North Koreans officials this time reportedly observing.
Iran insisted that the Shahab-3 was “entirely” Iranian-made, but experts said it was clearly modeled on the Nodong. (Similarly, Iran’s earlier Shahab-2 was essentially the same as an earlier North Korean Scud missile, the short-range Hwasong-6).
In July 2006, after North Korea fired a long-range Taepodong-2 as well as several Nodongs and Hwasongs, Bush administration officials told U.S. lawmakers that Iranian officials had witnessed the tests. (The Taepodong-2 aborted 40 seconds after launch.)
Hardware observed in a televised military parade in North Korea last October showed that Iranian missile improvements were now starting to show up on North Korean weapons, further reinforcing suspicions about ongoing joint development.
A dangerous time
The IISS report says the dynastic succession underway in North Korea and uncertainties arising from the process make this a risky time.
North Korea could become “an even more dangerous nation, more inclined to engage in further military provocations, to cling to its weapons of mass destruction and to offer them for sale to any would-be buyer,” it says.
“The Kim family will have to rely heavily on physical power exercised by the military and the state-security apparatus in order to ensure a successful succession. In pursuit of the goal of becoming a ‘strong and prosperous great nation’ by 2012, the centennial of the founding father’s birth, such military capabilities are all that the regime can summon.”
The report offers several scenarios for unification of the Korean peninsula
The first two “positive” scenarios are viewed as unlikely – a “soft landing,” with the regime gradually ending aggressive behavior and seeking reconciliation and possibly eventual peaceful integration with the South; or a “German-style reunification by absorption and a voluntary or peaceful collapse of the Kim regime.”
A third scenario envisages “unification through North Korean collapse the hard way,” triggered by an internal challenge or South Korean military retaliation to further provocation from the North.
A fourth, similar, scenario is “reunification through war.”
Finally, the IISS report says a potential outcome that should not be ruled out would see the Pyongyang regime survive, propped up by Beijing and becoming a de facto satellite or client state of China.
“China seems to have made a strategic decision that a unified Korea under Seoul leadership and allied to the U.S. goes fundamentally against its interests,” it says.