The IAEA report on Iran is now out, and we naturally searched it for any mention of cooperation with North Korea. (the Institute for Science and International Security maintains a useful site with the documents). The report contains no specific references to the DPRK, and some if not most of what it reports is not news. But the report is a striking step for an organization that is rightly cautious in what it says about member states and it is larded with information that points at the North Korean connection.
The report walks through Iran’s failure to suspend proscribed activities and discusses monitoring efforts at each of the facilities under safeguards. The IAEA does not report any evidence of diversion at these facilities, which is hardly surprising. As in North Korea, the facilities under safeguards are not the problem; it is those not under safeguards and other activities that constitute the challenge.
A constant refrain in the report is uncertainty: in the absence of compliance with its Additional Protocol obligations, the IAEA simply cannot declare that Iran is clean. The Additional Protocol is a legal document granting the IAEA complementary inspection authority that would provide greater assurances about possible undeclared activities. Iran signed the Additional Protocol in 2003, complied in cat-and-mouse fashion until 2006 and has balked since.
The most important part of the report is based on wide-ranging intelligence sources on militarization efforts. Although the Iranians claim this is a US plot, the IAEA reports on cooperating with 10 national intelligence services as well as open source documents and its own investigatory efforts. The problems include:
- Efforts, “some successful,” to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities;
- Efforts to develop “undeclared pathways” for the production of nuclear material, namely uranium enrichment;
- The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network, clearly the Khan network.
- Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.
- In addition, the report provides very interesting and detailed institutional information on how the Iranian program is structured. The Agency reports “indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”
Where does North Korea fit into this? Much of the press buzz has focused on possible collaboration with a Russian scientist. But that seems like a sideshow compared to the long-standing North Korea ties, which the press initially ignored. The DPRK and Iran have a well-documented relationship with respect to direct DPRK missile sales going back to the 1980s. As Joshua Pollack summarizes in a recent issue of the The Non-Proliferation Review, these direct sales have declined dramatically, and well before the Proliferation Security Initiative; we reached similar conclusions in our effort to reconstruct the North Korea’s external economic relations.
The problem is now more difficult to track, and resides in complex network relationships and parallel developments. The Iranians and North Koreans were both beneficiaries of the A.Q. Khan network. But Iran and North Korea have subsequently gone on to develop technical cooperation that is more difficult to track—or interdict—than direct trade. That cooperation almost certainly involves missiles but could now extend into precisely the issues that are of greatest concern: HEU enrichment and even bomb design.
Over the weekend, The Korea Times reported on an unidentified diplomatic source saying that "hundreds of North Korean nuclear and missile engineers and scientists have been working at more than 10 sites, including Natanz and Qom.” Accoring to the source, the North Koreans rotate in every three to six months from third countries, with a clear income motive. They are identified with Bureau 99, supervised by the North's ruling Workers' Party Munitions Industry Department, and purportedly a hub for North Korea’s exports of weapons and military technology.
Two particular items caught our eye in this regard, in part because they were not simply a recitation of earlier efforts but bring us closer to the present and possible North Korean connections. 2007 information from a member of “the clandestine nuclear supply network” suggests that Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information that goes beyond what was supplied to Libya. Two member states also provided information on modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009 that all point straight to an HEU device (para. 52). In classic understatement, the IAEA report notes that “the application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency.
The underlying concern is the marriage of all of these pieces: the more compact HEU bomb design coupled with increasingly capable intermediate range missiles. If North Korea tests a missile—or even another nuclear device—is Iran a beneficiary of the test data?
The IAEA report is of particular importance because of the organization’s caution with respect to Iran (and Syria, which we reported on earlier). With the North Koreans out of the NPT and the IAEA sidelined, the only other official statement we have with respect to these activities is the UN Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts report, which the Chinese tried to block as we reported earlier. These reports lend credence to the various findings that have been mined by a group of open-source researchers for some time. In addition to Josh Pollack’s piece noted above, useful summaries are also contained in the following sources. The usual “caveat emptor” applies; everyone is working the same open-source material.
Bruce Bechtol, Defiant Failed State, (Potomoc Books 2010), pp. 54-60.
Dan Pinkston, North Korea's Ballistic Missile Program (US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute 2008).
Christina Lin, The King from the East: DPRK-Syria-Iran Nexus... (Korea Economic Institute 2008).