When I last traveled to Seoul, I took in a ballgame. (I am now a fierce partisan of the Doosan Bears.) I headed to the ballpark, anticipating the perfect marriage of Korean and American culture: kimchi dogs!
As it turns out, South Koreans eat fried chicken at baseball games. Who knew? For reasons I cannot fathom, it has never occurred to anyone to smother a hot dog in spicy kimchi, despite the fact that this is fusion cuisine's answer to peanut butter and jelly. The moral of this little tale is that just because two things ought to go great together, the real world sometimes disappoints.
Which brings us to nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran. There have been any number of stories in recent days detailing the allegedly close and continuing cooperation between nuclear weaponeers in both countries. A casual reader perusing the Sunday Times, Jerusalem Post, Kyodo News, and Chosun Ilbo might very well conclude that North Korea's nuclear test was as good as an Iranian one. "Why Iran already has the bomb," was the provocative title of an article in Tablet.
But, like kimchi dogs, it's an obvious idea that doesn't seem to have a basis in fact.
Many of the people pushing the "Iranian test" hypothesis are simply trying to hijack a Northeast Asian crisis for their own preferred policy in the Middle East, which usually involves bombing the crap out of Iran. Others are probably just fascinated by the idea of an international rogues gallery of scientists holed up in a fortress of doom, testing nuclear weapons. (Imagine Mohsen Fakhrizadeh asking Dr. No how he lost his hands, with Ri Je-son rolling his eyes at having to hear that story one more time.)
Few of these authors, however, seem to have thought very carefully about either the status of Iran's nuclear program or the purpose of testing nuclear weapons in general. A careful consideration of both, however, helps illustrate why the reality is probably a lot less exciting than the headlines. There probably is some cooperation, but not of the sort that alters the fundamental policy problem with regard to Iran.
Let's start with the allegations.
The Sunday Times, citing the usual "Western intelligence sources," reported that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, generally believed to be the head of Iran's shuttered weaponization program, visited Pyongyang, possibly before attending the DPRK's nuclear test. The Jerusalem Post picked up that story, quoting an Israeli academic stating that "The Iranians didn't carry out a nuclear test in Iran, but they may have done so in North Korea." Debka, on the other hand, expressed doubt that Fakhrizadeh would leave the safety of Iran, given the desire of certain intelligence services to see his brains splattered across his dashboard. Kyodo News, citing a "Western diplomatic source" reported that Iran paid tens of millions of dollars to have Iranian scientists observe the test. Chosun Ilbo picked up that story.
Iran and North Korea do, of course, do bad things together. The North Koreans and Iranians were both clients of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
Iran and North Korea also have a well-documented cooperation on ballistic missiles. At least one account has the early contacts between North Korea and the Khan network arising from North Korean and Pakistani technicians working on the Iranian missile program during the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. intelligence community's most recent 721 report -- the unclassified summary of WMD proliferation it periodically sends Congress -- clearly states that North Korea's relationship with Iran "remains strong."
One can clearly see this connection in the missiles themselves. Iran's Shahab-3 is a Nodong clone. Iran's Simorgh appears to be similar to the first stage of North Korea's Unha rocket. The third stage of North Korea's Unha rocket appears to be based on the second stage of an Iranian rocket called the Safir, which is in turn based on vernier engines from a Soviet missile called the SS-N-6 that North Korea appears to have exported to Iran.
Recent allegations of cooperation have some basis in fact. In September, Iran's science and higher education minister signed a memorandum of understanding with the North Korean foreign minister on scientific and technical cooperation. The MOU was followed by a Kyodo News report that Iran had agreed to permanently station missile engineers from Shahid Hemmat Industries in North Korea. The latter claim is plausible but not corroborated. Some observers have pointed to similarities in the test stands at the Shahid Hemmat complex and the North Korean launch site at Tonghae -- a similarity I noted at the time. All test stands look more or less alike, as evidenced by images from the United States. Given the close cooperation between the two missile programs, the idea of a more-or-less continuous presence doesn't seem far-fetched.
The evidence, however, dries up on the subject of nuclear cooperation.
The idea is not crazy. Both Iran and North Korea were clients of the Khan network. North Korea swapped Nodong missiles to Pakistan for help with centrifuges and sold a reactor to Syria, so we know Pyongyang likes money. But there are also some important differences in their centrifuge programs: The Iranians are developing their own evolution of the P1 centrifuge using a carbon fiber material; the North Koreans claim to use some sort of maraging steel. Despite these differences, the pair might share an interest in developing a warhead small enough to place on a missile.