The White House and President Obama’s supporters insist that he’s making his first trip to Israel next month to assure the Jewish state that if push comes to shove with Iran, he’ll have Israel’s back. But North Korea’s nuclear test Tuesday morning could indicate that it’s already too late for that. If North Korea has the bomb, then for all practical purposes Iran does, too. If that’s so, then Obama’s policy of prevention has failed, and containment—a policy that the president has repeatedly said is not an option—is in fact all Washington has.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider the history of extensive North Korean-Iranian cooperation on a host of military and defense issues, including ballistic missiles and nuclear development, that dates back to the 1980s. This cooperation includes North Korean sales of technology and arms, like the BM-25, a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching Western Europe; Iran’s Shahab 3 missile is based on North Korea’s Nodong-1 and is able to reach Israel. Iran has a contigent of Iranian weapons engineers and defense officials stationed in North Korea. Meantime, North Korean scientists visit Iran. And last fall, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding regarding scientific, academic, and technological issues.
Given all this, there’s a great deal of concern that, as one senior U.S. official told the New York Times, “the North Koreans are testing for two countries.” The classic case of testing for another country is when the United States tested for the U.K. under the 1958 U.S.–U.K. Mutual Defense Agreement. The situation with the Hermit Kingdom and the Islamic Republic is different: The North Koreans certainly aren’t going to make the cooperation quite so explicit, but they’re also not hiding it. In January, Kim Jong-un boasted that the United States was the prime target for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. Earlier this month, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected the idea of nuclear negotiations with the United States. So, neither North Korea nor Iran believe the White House can do much to stop their march—one that they seem to be conducting in lockstep.
Nuclear-proliferation experts I spoke with are reluctant to push the conclusion quite that far. “There’s no evidence of direct cooperation on nuclear tests,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Monterey Institute, told me. “And it would be hard to know,” he added, given the paranoid, secretive nature of both regimes. Unless or until the North Koreans or Iranians volunteer that information, it is going to be hard to prove definitively that the North Koreans would give the bomb—or blueprints for one—to Iran.
For North Korea, the incentive to transfer technology, or an actual bomb, in exchange for money, or whatever else the regime needs, is powerful. The only world power capable of discouraging them from proliferating is China, but the Chinese are not going to push much harder than offering stiff rhetoric. The Chinese don’t necessarily want North Korea to have a bomb, but what they fear even more is destabilizing their neighbor such that the regime falls, the Korean peninsula is reunited, and they wind up with a pro-American government hosting 50,000 U.S. troops on their border. Beijing prefers to have a buffer.
Pyongyang’s nuclear program is the crown jewel of the North Korean state enterprise, a carefully guarded secret to which they have given only Iran access. Given how extensively the Iranian nuclear program has been penetrated by foreign intelligence services—which foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi openly admitted in 2010—the North Koreans surely understood they were taking an enormous risk by letting Iranians in the door. Whatever they’re getting from Iran in exchange—oil, money, or scientific cooperation on complicated issues—must be crucial. If Tehran has paid for access to Pyongyang’s program, it will also pay for a bomb. At this point, it could be only a matter of haggling over the price.
“Some of us have been saying this is something to worry about for five or six years,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C. “The North Koreans have been cooperating with Iran for about a decade on nuclear and missile issues, and the Iranians have several full-time weapons engineers on site in North Korea. Neither the North Koreans or the Iranians have made a secret of this. The Iranians were reported at North Korea’s last nuclear test as well. It’s hard to believe they had no access to the most recent test.”
North Korea’s previous test, its second, in May 2009 yielded an explosion half the size of Tuesday’s. The preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization measured Tuesday’s test as 5.0 in magnitude, which according to Sokolski is about half the size of the Hiroshima blast.
The fact that this is the third test, said Sokolski, is significant. “Either the North Koreans want to give the international community a nuclear Bronx cheer, or they’re testing something more advanced than they tested the first two times. If you’re trying to improve your technology you don’t keep testing the same first generation device over and over again.”
While details are still unclear, the widespread belief is that the North Koreans tested an enriched uranium device this time, while the first two tests used plutonium. The al-Kibar nuclear site in Syria, which the North Koreans helped design—and which the Israelis bombed in 2007—was a plutonium facility. Some experts suspect that if the bomb detonated Tuesday was using enriched uranium, this is yet another piece of evidence that Iran is likely “using North Korea as a backdoor plan for their own nuclear program.”
Lewis, who has written about the ties between Iranian and North Korean scientists, agrees that there has definitely been some coordination in the past on numerous defense issues. “Last fall North Korea and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding regarding science and technology issues. The North Koreans published a list of officials who signed the document, including the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization and its defense minister. We should be concerned about them exchanging information, and there are precedents for states passing on designs. The Chinese passed on designs to the Pakistanis who handed them off to the Libyans.”
Pakistan and Qaddafi’s Libya are open societies in comparison to Iran and North Korea. The regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran are highly ideological, where major policy decisions are made in a tight circle around the man on top—Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Ali Khamenei of Iran. Both regimes have made nuclear weapons a vital strategic interest, in spite of sanctions that have sent the Iranian currency plummeting and brought North Korea to the brink of starvation. But sharing nuclear information gives both a way out. North Korea will get billions that Iran will happily pay for a bomb or blueprints. Iran, once in possession of the bomb, will see Europe and perhaps even the United States relax their sanctions regimes in the hopes of getting Iran to the negotiating table by playing nice.
If this is the case, Obama will go down in history as the American president who presided over global nuclear proliferation, including rogue regimes. After four years of restraining the Israelis, he may now be going to visit them next month for a good reason: to apologize.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).