A North Korean in Iran

Why ongoing and close ties between Pyongyang's and Tehran's nuclear programs are cause for concern.

The death from natural causes of an old man in North Korea this month should have been the closing chapter of the tale of Pakistan's nuclear and missile cooperation with the Hermit Kingdom. Instead, it may mark the next episode in the saga of Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Jon Pyong Ho, who was 88, had been a highly decorated general in the Korean People's Army, as well as a senior figure in the Korean Workers' Party, Pyongyang's version of the Communist Party. He had been a crucial figure in transforming North Korea into a nuclear-weapon state and, even more controversially, was his country's interlocutor with Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, the "father" of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. One of the rare pieces of documentary evidence of such collaboration is a letter that Jon wrote to Khan in 1998, thanking the Pakistani scientist for his help and mentioning the payoffs the North Koreans had made to Pakistani generals. "Please give the agreed documents, components etc. to Mr. Yon [the newly appointed liaison with Khan] to be flown back when our plane returns after delivery of missile components," Jon wrote, an apparent reference to North Korea acquiring Pakistani centrifuges.

Although North Korea initially chose the plutonium route to a nuclear bomb, while Pakistan chose enriching uranium, both countries' nuclear programs have a great deal of overlap. Pakistan's Ghauri missiles, the initial launch vehicles for its nuclear weapons, are copies of the North Korean Nodong missile. North Korea's centrifuges at the uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon are copies of the so-called P-2 centrifuge, a design acquired through Khan.

Such was Jon's esteem that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly paid personal condolences at his wake on July 9, the day before the funeral. According to North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the funeral itself was a full-blown official event, organized by a committee of 88 top officials.

The first figure on that list of top officials was Kim Yong Nam. This prominent North Korean official is currently the president of the Supreme People's Assembly and has also served in many other top positions, including as minister of foreign affairs. His name set off alarm bells among North Korea watchers because, in 2002, Kim led a North Korean delegation to Damascus, Syria, where it signed an agreement believed to be related to Syria building a clandestine copy of Pyongyang's plutonium-producing reactor. Five years later, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the facility. Now it appears that Kim may be positioned to play the same role with Iran that Jon once played with Pakistan.

Kim's work has also made him a frequent visitor to Tehran. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has avoided being photographed at a nuclear plant -- a notable contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who loved to be seen striding next to a cascade of centrifuges -- he has shown no such reluctance with Kim. There are several photos of the two men in Tehran in August 2013, when Kim came for Rouhani's inauguration. And in 2012, Kim was Pyongyang's representative at the Non-Aligned Movement's summit in Tehran. At the official welcoming ceremony, Kim strode alongside Ahmadinejad while reviewing an Iranian military honor guard, and later the two men witnessed the signing of a scientific and technological agreement. No details were provided about the agreement, other than it would include setting up joint scientific and technological laboratories, the exchange of scientific teams, and the transfer of technology in the fields of information technology, energy, environment, agriculture, and food.

On the same 2012 visit, Kim had a one-on-one meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran's top leader told him that North Korea and Iran have "common enemies" and that "in the march towards great goals, one should be serious, and pressures, sanctions, and threats should not cause any crack in determination."

One example of transfer of technology that has concerned Washington and other capitals has been in the field of missiles. Iran's Shahab-3 missile is, like Pakistan's Ghauri, a locally produced version of the North Korean Nodong missile. A Shahab-3 missile fired from Iran has the range to reach Israel, as well as threaten Tehran's Gulf Arab rivals. But North Korea has developed bigger missiles, which, if transferred, would extend Iran's reach and payload delivery. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also raised concerns about redesign work by Iran on the Shahab-3 re-entry vehicle to allow it to carry a new payload, which could be a nuclear device.

Public North Korean contacts with Iran have continued this year. In February, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took a break from negotiations with international powers over his country's nuclear program to hold talks with North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Gil Song aimed at bolstering bilateral ties. Zarif reportedly emphasized the entitlement of all countries to the right to benefit from peaceful nuclear technology, and Ri supported "Iran's peaceful nuclear policy."

One particular area of concern for the global powers negotiating with Iran is that North Korean technicians will provide Iran with advanced centrifuge technology. Pyongyang has apparently mastered production of the P-2 centrifuge. These are much more efficient than the P-1 centrifuges that Iran currently uses, and they are more proven than the IR-2m that Iran is trying to develop, apparently due to technical difficulties with making the P-2 type and shortages of key raw materials.

Such a move would complicate the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, which have already been extended until late November after the parties failed to reach an agreement by the original July 20 deadline. The talks over North Korea's illicit nuclear program are going even worse: The legacy of Jon Pyong Ho is moving forward, as the United States opts for a strategy of "strategic patience" -- waiting North Korea to return to the negotiating table. North Korea's restarted reactor at Yongbyon is producing new plutonium, its centrifuges are enriching uranium at the same site and possibly unknown locations, and preparations are under way for another nuclear test.

So far, there are no indications that any diplomatic agreement over Iran's nuclear program will shed light on Pyongyang with Tehran's possibly nuclear collaboration. But it would be rash indeed to argue that the absence of evidence shows that nothing has gone on.

Photo: IIPA via Getty Images


First Gaza, Then the West Bank

Why Israel can no longer let the Palestinian Authority be responsible for security in Judea and Samaria.

Once again, the Israel Defense Forces have been forced to enter the Gaza Strip to fight for the safety of our citizens. We understand the risks of the current ground operation. Despite the fact that it cost me my position as deputy defense minister, I was willing to pay this personal price and vocally advocate for this operation. It was clear to me that the alternative of leaving Hamas's rocket operation and terror tunnels intact would have been disastrous for the safety and security of all Israelis.

In addition to our fight with Hamas, it is high time to reassess our relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). While we have no desire to control the daily lives of the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria -- the historical name for the West Bank -- the fact is that we can no longer continue to withdraw our security forces and rely on the PA to ensure the safety of Israelis. Numerous events throughout our region, from Israel to Iraq, have proven time and again that when Western forces withdraw and rely on local despots, militias, or even puppet regimes, the forces of Islamic fanaticism quickly fill the void -- and put us all at risk.

Hamas is not a lone organization acting in a vacuum. It is a fellow traveler with extreme forces throughout the Middle East working to overthrow Western-allied governments and replace them with an Islamic caliphate operating under sharia law. Over the past few years, Western diplomats' high hopes for the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring proved short-lived. Leaders who on the surface appeared Western-oriented turned out to be either frontmen for Islamic extremists or weak leaders who could not hold onto power in this harsh region.

The current situation in Iraq is the latest example of this phenomenon. Our American friends meant well: They defeated an evil dictator with a history of horrid human rights abuses, a proven record of using weapons of mass destruction, and a record of threatening regional stability. In the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the United States invested billions of dollars in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and paid an unfathomably high price in terms of American soldiers killed and wounded while attempting to rid the country of Islamist terrorists.

Despite these best efforts, the Iraqi government that the United States left behind has failed to retain even a semblance of law and order. The moment American forces began to withdraw from Iraq, groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which had been waiting in the wings, moved in. With Kurdish autonomy in the north and Iran exerting increasing influence in the south, it is apparent that the Iraq we had known for the past century no longer exists.

Our experiences here in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are not that different. Beginning in the 1990s, successive Israeli governments signed and implemented a series of agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization. These agreements set up the PA as an autonomous entity tasked with administrating the daily lives of the Palestinians of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The PA was also supposed to uphold law and order in these territories, while aiding Israel in its fight against murderous terrorist organizations.

In retrospect, Israel's decision to withdraw from the main Palestinian population centers did not bring security and stability, let alone peace. Instead, each Israeli redeployment allowed the Islamist extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to increase their strength. This eventually led to a murderous wave of suicide bombers in the mid-1990s originating from the territories under PA control, and then an all-out war on Israeli civilians in the first decade of the 21st century. In both instances the PA was either too weak, or unwilling, to confront and halt the terrorists.

Our disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was even more problematic. The PA did not take advantage of its newfound sovereignty and create a "Singapore of the Middle East," as many naively hoped. Instead, Hamas seized power by force, literally throwing their rivals off the roofs of Gaza's buildings. Today, with hundreds of rockets and missiles fired daily at our population centers and dozens of attack tunnels burrowed from Gaza into Israel, the scope of this mistake is clear to all. Every day during this operation, we are reminded what terrorist organizations like Hamas are capable of when our attention is focused elsewhere.

Since 2009, it has been Likud Party policy to strengthen the civil aspects of the PA and allow its security forces to reign as freely as possible in Judea and Samaria. The events of the past few weeks have proven that successive Israeli governments were mistaken to allow such a free hand. The Hamas terrorists who murdered the three Israeli teenagers on June 12 planned their attack from, and then returned to, areas that are fully controlled by the PA. It is not far-fetched to see how Judea and Samaria could easily turn into a full-fledged terror base like Gaza is today. 

Those among us who naively thought we could outsource the security and safety of our citizens to the Palestinian Authority should now understand that this was a dangerous gambit. While we will continue to encourage the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria to take responsibility for their day-to-day civilian lives, we can no longer allow the PA even the smallest amount of autonomy when it comes to anti-terror efforts. Only by allowing the Israel Defense Forces and our other security services to operate freely in every corner of Judea and Samaria will we be able ensure that all the residents of this land receive the level of security they deserve.

The events of the past 15 years do not bode well for those who hope for stability in the Middle East. As much as Israel and our Western allies would like the world's Muslim and Arab countries to transform overnight into liberal democracies, we know this is unlikely to happen.

The lesson here is simple, both in terms of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians and the international community's engagement with our neighbors. We must do all we can to provide support to those who truly fight for democracy but at the same time, we cannot compromise one iota on a wide-ranging and in-depth security involvement.

This is true even when it means more boots on the ground, deep in dangerous territory. Israel is discovering this once again during the current round of fighting with Hamas. 

Wishful thinking will not make the world a safer place. Only hard work and a daily battle against international terrorism will inch us closer to a day when the people of the Middle East -- and the world -- will live in the peace and security they so deserve.