By Javier Serrat, on 10 Dec 2012, Briefing/Amid concerns that North Korea might conduct a long-range ballistic missile test as early as this week, reports have surfaced indicating that Iran has permanently stationed staff in the East Asian country since October as part of a recent cooperation agreement with Pyongyang. According to the reports, the staff is comprised of four experts from Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) as well as private firms. Some analysts speculate that the mission might be based near Sino-ri, a complex located near North Korea’s western coast and the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, commonly known as Tongchang-ri, where this month’s missile test is expected to take place. Besides serving as a base for a No-dong missile battalion, Sino-ri is also thought to host a training facility.
Military cooperation between Iran and North Korea is not a new phenomenon, particularly when it comes to exchanges of hardware and designs for ballistic missiles. In fact, the rocket North Korea is expected to test this month, the multi-stage Unha-3, a variation of the Taepodong-2, is believed to be the product of a joint development project between the two countries. Multiple design similarities between the Unha and some Iranian launch vehicles provide some evidence for this belief. For instance, the first stage of the Unha resembles the Simorgh rocket unveiled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the anniversary of the 2010 launch of Iran’s first domestic satellite, Omid. Likewise, the width and shape of the Unha’s third stage point to a similarity with the third stage of Iran’s Safir rocket, which carried the Omid satellite.
The panels of experts in charge of monitoring implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions against both countries’ nuclear and missile programs have recently noted that Pyongyang and Tehran continue to exchange missile technology, transferring missile components aboard Air Koryo and Air Iran flights. These exchanges have also benefited Iran. The U.S. intelligence community believes that the Safir might have been developed with technology provided by North Korea, specifically, engines derived from the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. Likewise, in the past, North Korea provided Iran with engines that were later used to develop the Shahab-3 rocket.
In the case of the most recent pact, according to sources cited in Japanese media, Iran is seeking assistance from North Korea in airborne separation of ballistic missiles as well as warhead miniaturization. In exchange, Tehran would provide Pyongyang with expertise in civil engineering. Although the Japanese media reports did not reveal which firms had sent experts to the permanent mission, the Security Council has imposed sanctions against a number of private entities and front companies that are in fact controlled by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization. Those firms have supplied Pyongyang with missile technology in the past, including Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, which is responsible for the development of the Shahab-3 and other liquid-propelled missiles. In fact, 12 officials from Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group were present at the previous Unha test in April.
Yet, historically, cooperation between the two countries has not been limited to exchanges of prohibited hardware. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian experts were invited to observe the flight tests for North Korea’s Hwasong-5 liquid-propelled missile system, and Iran agreed to provide funding for the program. In exchange, once developed, Iran acquired about 100 units of the missile, which it named Shahab-1. In the late-1990s, after North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile testing, it is believed that Iran transferred telemetry data to Pyongyang from its No-dong-based Shahab-3 tests, effectively helping North Korea circumvent its pledge. In that regard, the recent developments are a continuation — and, indeed, an expansion — of what Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has described as an information-sharing coalition between Pyongyang and Tehran.
While the stationing of a permanent Iranian presence at Sino-ri does not constitute a departure from the established dynamics of the relationship between the two countries, the move will undoubtedly reinforce concerns that Iran-North Korea cooperation might expand into the nuclear realm. Such fears are not unreasonable, and some observers have described specific areas in which Iran’s nuclear program could benefit from Pyongyang’s assistance. Indeed, there has been speculation that Iran might have tested the Musudan rocket in exchange for data from Pyongyang’s 2006 nuclear test. Moreover, last year it was reported in the German press that North Korea was assisting Syria in the construction of a maraging steel plant in that country. Maraging steel, besides its potential use in the production of improved M-600 rockets for Damascus, is one of the critical materials for centrifuge enrichment. Iran is partially underwriting that new production line.
The recent agreement between Pyongyang and Tehran increases the suspicions about where that cooperation might be heading. While the official announcements mentioned that the countries had agreed to collaborate on sustainable development, education, agriculture and the environment, North Korea’s state-owned news agency reported the attendance at the signing ceremony and related events of Ahmad Vahidi, head of MODAFL, and Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, who besides being one of Iran’s vice presidents is also the director of its Atomic Energy Organization.
As the international community continues its efforts to curb the transfer of sensitive technologies to proliferating states by increasing trade sanctions and interdictions of cargo to prevent nuclear and missile transfers, the latest revelations are a sobering reminder that this type of trade is not limited to contraband in hardware but extends to the transfer of knowledge — a commodity much harder to control.
Javier Serrat is a research associate and former Scoville Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.