SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea and Iran, two fiercely anti-American regimes, appear to be bolstering their military and diplomatic cooperation, including the possible sale of missiles to the Tehran regime, according to intelligence sources.
An Iranian parliamentary delegation visiting Pyongyang was given a VIP welcome with a reception held Monday at the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly to celebrate the “friendly and cooperative relations growing strong in various fields” between the two countries, as the North Korean news service put it.
Israeli intelligence believes North Korea recently sold 18 intermediate-range missiles to Tehran. Some accounts also place Iranian observers in North Korea when the Pyongyang regime test-fired seven missiles over the Sea of Japan.
“The Iranians are looking to North Korea for their new designs,” said Uzi Rubin, a former head of the Israeli missile defense program. “Of course, we are worried. Whatever North Korea makes eventually ends up in the Middle East.”
Rubin said Iran is particularly interested in North Korea’s multi-stage missile, the Taepodong, because it can be used to launch a satellite. The missile was one of seven test-fired by North Koreans, but it failed after 42 seconds, splashing into the sea not far from the test site.
Another missile that Rubin believes might have been among those tested was an intermediate-range missile based on an old Soviet design for a submarine-launched nuclear missile. These newly manufactured missiles are estimated to have a range of 1,550 miles, which would allow them to reach Israel and much of southern Europe.
Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said in April that Israel had evidence that North Korea had shipped 18 of these missiles – known alternately as the SS-N-6 or the BM-25 – to an Iranian missile base at the port city of Bandar Abbas.
“What the Iranians bought was a missile in a box. It is an unproven missile,” said Israeli defense analyst Amos Ben-David, who said there is great curiosity about whether the new missile was among those tested earlier this month.
A Japanese newspaper reported recently that 10 Iranians were invited to North Korea to observe the missile tests. A South Korean military expert, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he heard that Iranians were stationed at two launch sites along North Korea’s east coast and on a boat in the Sea of Japan.
Testifying before a recent Senate committee, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill confirmed that there were Iranians present for the tests, but in a news conference the following day retracted his remarks, saying he was unsure.
Iranians are believed to have observed a 1998 test flight of the Taepodong and many South Korean analysts are convinced that their fingerprints eventually will be found on these latest tests.
Kim Tae-woo, a South Korean analyst with the governmental Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said “There is a high probability of Iranian involvement in these missile tests, but we don’t have hard evidence.”
There is a natural affinity between North Korea and Iran today, as the two surviving members of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” which once included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Both have strained relations with the rest of the international community – North Korea over its claim of having nuclear weapons and Iran for suspicions that it is developing weapons-grade uranium.
“There are strong incentives for cooperation between the two in terms of weapons of mass destruction,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist with Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterrey. “They are both insecure countries that don’t have a lot of friends and have many enemies. They have a shortage of weapons suppliers so it makes sense for them to share data and set up a division of labor for research and development.”
The relationship dates back to the 1980s when North Korea sold missiles and launchers to Tehran for use in the war against Iraq. Later, they cooperated on the joint development of Iran’s Shahab missiles. Iranian cargo planes were frequent visitors to Pyongyang’s Sunan airport. On at least one occasion, U.S. intelligence believed that Iran conducted a missile test on North Korea’s behalf, taking advantage of its vast expanses of desert.
Iran is thought to be North Korea’s best customer since pressure from the Bush administration has forced others – most notably Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Nigeria – to sever most ties with Pyongyang. Syria also remains a customer.