Iran may have helped North Korea launch a multistage rocket and put a satellite into orbit on December 12, according to a new report by John S. Park. “What started as a transactional relationship, where Iran provided much-needed cash to North Korea in return for missile parts and technology, has evolved into an increasingly effective partnership.” The report also warns that the United States needs to identify and track Iranian and North Korean state trading companies to disrupt the supply chains of North Korea’s missile program. The following are excerpts, with link to the full text from The National Bureau of Asian Research at the end.
Client Becomes Partner
Although sporadic cooperation between North Korea and Iran on missile development has been well documented, analysts viewed this interaction largely through the lens of serial commercial transactions. The conventional wisdom was that cash-starved North Korea found a lucrative client in Iran. As a result, analysts tended to view the two pariahs’ long-range missile development programs as largely independent endeavors. However, North Korea’s sudden success on December 12 was not the result of good fortune but rather was the fruition of its increasing institutional cooperation with Iran. In September 2012, North Korea and Iran signed a scientific and technological cooperation agreement. Largely dismissed as a propaganda ploy, it provided an organizational framework to set up joint laboratories and exchange programs for scientific teams, as well as to transfer technology in the fields of information technology, engineering, biotechnology, renewable energy, and the environment…
This bilateral partnership—and mutual reliance—is unique in the international community, especially given that North Korea and Iran lack any common ideology, religion, geographic space, or ethnicity. An overlooked reality is that each has helped the other cope during national emergencies. For Iran, North Korea was a vital supplier of conventional arms during the Iran-Iraq War. For North Korea, Iran has been a long-standing linchpin in Pyongyang’s vitally important procurement activities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe—a role that China is now increasingly playing as a result of more foreign companies setting up production facilities targeting the growing Chinese market.
What is to be done? The U.S. response to the fused North Korean and Iranian missile programs will require innovation and adaptation to better understand this new reality. The following initiatives could help bridge gaps resulting from obsolete frameworks of analysis:
- The United States needs to identify and track the primary North Korean and Iranian state trading companies engaged in operationalizing the September 2012 agreement. Many analysts have traditionally examined supply chains, logistics, and procurement as separate activities. An integrated approach to analyzing the full life cycle of a North Korean–Iranian transaction is long overdue—and now possible given access to key defectors in Seoul who have worked in North Korean state trading companies.
- Building on improved understanding of how the fused missile development programs function, policymakers can structure new incentives to disrupt critical sections in the life cycle. Rather than rely solely on a sanctions-based policy of “strategic patience,” the United States should consider innovative programs to incentivize private Chinese companies in third-party countries that serve as vital middlemen in key transactions.
John S. Park is a Junior Faculty Fellow with the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.