A detail generally overlooked in all we’ve been reading about the misfired Iranian missile that brought down the Ukraine airliner with 176 people aboard: It was most likely made in North Korea and sold to Iran or made in Iran from a North Korean design and technology.
The relationship between North Korea and Iran revolves around the export to Iran of thousands of short-to-mid-range missiles over the past 20 to 30 years. They’re the type that Iran also ships to Syria and the anti-Israel groups, Hezbollah and Hamas. The missiles that Iran fired at U.S. bases in Iraq in a show of vengeance for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani would also have been North Korean.
The relationship goes deep into the history of the region. George W. Bush, in the first state-of-the-union address of his presidency in January 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, described an “axis of evil” binding North Korea, Iran and Iraq, then ruled by Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s membership in that infamous grouping may have ended when Bush ordered U.S. troops into Iraq the next year on the basis of phony reports about his nuclear program, but Iran and North Korea have long been in cahoots on nukes and missiles.
North Korea has hundreds of advisors “on the ground now” in Iran providing “technical support and training on a variety of systems and capabilities,” says Bruce Bechtol, who’s been watching North Korea ever since serving as a marine in South Korea, then an intelligence analyst in the Pentagon and a faculty member at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Bechtol, the author of numerous books and articles on North Korea’s leadership and military structure, says the North has shipped Scud, Rodong and Musudan missiles to Iran and the technology for the intercontinental Taepodong.
“North Korea is the seller and Iran is the buyer,” says Bechtol, but that’s not all. The two also collaborate on nuclear technology originally acquired from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist renowned as “father of the Pakistan atomic bomb.” A national hero for his role in arming Pakistan against its historic foe, India, already a nuclear power, A.Q. Khan made a fortune selling nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea before he was finally arrested and confined to his estate in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad. Iran has yet to fabricate a nuclear warhead but has had teams of scientists, engineers and technicians on hand in North Korea witnessing all six of the North’s underground nuclear tests, last staged in September 2017, as well as numerous missile tests.
The bond between Iran and North Korea confronts the U.S. with a serious question that has yet to come up amid all the speculation about U.S. policy toward both countries. Much as President Donald Trump would like to calm fears of an impending war with Iran and come to terms with North Korea on its nukes, he does not appear to be aware of the de facto alliance between the two. Everywhere Iran supports militias and front groups around the middle east, North Korean advisers are there too telling them how to fire those missiles.
But how do these missiles get to Iran? A few may go by boat, eluding capture by the U.S. navy and others committed to stopping the traffic, but the easiest, safest, swiftest route is by air. The planes have to go through Chinese air space, possibly stopping in China, and also may be landing in Pakistan. China has long been providing military aid to Pakistan through which it’s building a road across the Himalayas all the way to the Arabian Sea. Both Pakistan and China count on Iran as a major source of oil. China in turn provides North Korea with virtually all its oil. As Muslim countries, Pakistan and Iran have been on good terms for years.
The enduring nature of the Tehran-Pyongyang axis, however, does not mean that a wider war is inevitable in either the Middle East or northeast Asia. Protests in Tehran may force the government to pull back, to avoid conflict, while Kim focuses on economic issues. If Kim does have a “strategic new weapon,” however, it’s certain that Iranian and North Korean scientists and engineers are working on it and both sides will have it. That’s assuming such a fearsome weapon really exists.