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May 3, 2015 12:01 pm

How to Stop Iran? Start Talking About North Korea

avatar by John Bolton

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Iran's Arak heavy water reactor. Photo: Wikipedia.

Recent Chinese estimates of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capabilities should have shattered our complacency about Pyongyang’s proliferation threat.

Moreover, given the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s longstanding, close working relationship with Pyongyang should also have rung alarm bells around the world.

Instead, the revelation that the North might already possess 20 nuclear warheads, and could double that in 2016, quickly sank from view.

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While both the media and US intelligence agencies face enormous obstacles in covering North Korea, China’s estimates of Pyongyang’s nuclear infrastructure, especially its uranium-enrichment capacity, nonetheless compel our attention.

Beijing’s judgment may be imperfect, but its enormous presence and influence in the North make it far likelier to be accurate than US, Japanese or South Korean estimates.

North Korea’s sizeable nuclear arsenal imperils East Asia — particularly, Tokyo and Seoul — but also the United States. Its ballistic-missile program is rapidly nearing the capability of reaching our West Coast.

And the North’s deep poverty gives it every incentive to sell virtually any weapons or technology to anyone with hard currency, including terrorists or other rogue states.

Besides being one of the planet’s poorest, most isolated, most repressed countries, the North has been under comprehensive American sanctions since the Korean War and extensive UN sanctions since 2006, when it resumed ballistic-missile launches and first tested a nuclear device.

None of this prevented Pyongyang from progressing to the threatening levels China now assesses.

This alone should warn us that the less-comprehensive, less well-enforced sanctions against Iran could never compel it to renounce its 30-year quest for deliverable nuclear weapons. If North Korea, perennially on the brink of starvation, can become a nuclear power, Iran can easily match its fellow rogue state.

China’s new estimates should thereby compel a critical re-evaluation of the talks among Iran and the Security Council’s permanent members (and Germany).

A deal blocking Iran from proceeding quickly to nuclear weapons, whatever its specific terms, rests on two critical assumptions:

First, the United States and others must have essentially full knowledge about the current status of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.

Without such a “baseline” assessment, we cannot possibly judge the likely efficacy of a counter-proliferation agreement. If you don’t know where you start, you can hardly judge the sufficiency of the measures agreed to.

Second, following the baseline assessment, Iran must either be fully transparent about its nuclear and missile programs, or a combination of international inspectors and our intelligence agencies must be able to provide the facts necessary to detect and respond to Iranian violations.

Neither of these fundamental preconditions exists in the April 2 “framework.” This defect alone should be central to the debate if a “final” deal is ever reached.

China’s new estimates underscore another key deficiency in the “framework” with Iran: It fails to consider Iran’s facilitators beyond its borders.

Dealings with other rogue states (or private efforts like A.Q. Khan’s former bazaar of uranium-enrichment technology and weapons designs) increase the difficulty of monitoring and stopping Tehran from becoming a nuclear state.

Tehran and Pyongyang have cooperated on ballistic missiles since at least 1998, when a missile launched from North Korea landed in the Pacific east of Japan.

The outraged Japanese public reaction in effect forced North Korea to declare a moratorium on launch testing.

Pyongyang turned then (if not before) to Tehran to cooperate on missile development, not surprisingly since both countries relied on the same Soviet-era Scud missile technology. Cooperation continued even after the North resumed launch testing in 2006.

The Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007 was a clone of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor and was being constructed under its supervision.

Given Syria’s limited economy, Iran may well have largely financed the project, for obvious reasons: What better place for Pyongyang and Tehran to hide illicit nuclear activities than outside their own territories?

Subsequently, numerous reports have emerged of Iranian and North Korean scientists exchanging visits and potentially valuable information.

What if Pyongyang is already hosting an extensive Iranian-enrichment program, deeply buried somewhere in its half of the peninsula? What if some of the estimated 20 warheads are actually Iran’s property, having been manufactured and now stored far from Tehran to avoid detection?

East Asian experts have long looked through a stovepipe at North Korea, and Middle East experts gaze through their own stovepipe at Iran.

Broader proliferation concerns should have caused wider inquiries earlier, but China’s ominous new estimates now require it. No Iran deal is acceptable until the North Korean connection is fully exposed and understood.

John Bolton was US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. This article was originally published by The New York Post.

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  • Ambassador Bolton is correct in reminding us to examine the comparisons and connections between the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea.

    But, there is one important respect in which the two cases are certainly different. Namely, North Korea is a treaty ally of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which clearly regards North Korea as in its “sphere of influence.” Thus, an armed attack on North Korea would raise the risk of some form of conflict with the PRC, as was the case during the Korean War, 1950-1953.

    By contrast, had President Barack Obama promptly (2009) used some force to destroy or impair Tehran’s nuclear-weapons development facilities, there would then likely have been close to “zero” risk of another country (perhaps North Korea) coming to the aid of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even today, the risk of using some force against the Iranian nuclear-weapons development facilities is probably less than a comparable measure aimed at North Korea.

    Chairman Mao resented the nuclear-weapons monopoly of the Soviet Union and the USA. Thus, he saw nuclear proliferation as a tool for diminishing the advantage of those two super-powers. Mao’s conviction contributed to the Sino-Soviet split and the PRC’s first atom bomb (1964). After Mao’s death (1976), his understanding of the utility of nuclear proliferation inspired the PRC to share nuclear material and technology with Pakistan, which in turn proliferated to countries like North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The PRC has also covertly continued to proliferate (directly and indirectly) to both North Korea and Iran, including missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

    The incident in Tiananmen Square (1989), the collapse of Communism in East Europe, the 1991 Gulf War, and the implosion of the Soviet Union (1991) all contributed to enhancing PRC feelings of vulnerability. In this optic, the PRC viewed covert nuclear proliferation positively as a long-term political and military strategy for weakening the USA hyper-power both in the Mideast and Northeast Asia.

    Today, this long-term PRC proliferation practice is paying enormous dividends. In the Far East, there is growing local realization that defense ties with the USA are ineffective for protection from North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Some of these now sit atop mobile, command-and-control launch vehicles — significantly made or designed in the PRC.

    Purpose? States like South Korea are put on notice that if they seek enhanced security, they had better go to Beijing to cultivate closer ties to the PRC, which credibly has the ability to rein in North Korea. In this new security environment, countries like South Korea and Taiwan are already showing signs of wobbling a bit closer to the PRC orbit.

    Bottom line is that the PRC probably sees nuclear proliferation objectively as a distinguishing feature of some chessmen in the eternal “great game” of the world powers. These are rounds of chess, in which the USA has recently been checkmated in both Northeast Asia and the Far East, as was the PRC’s intention decades ago.

    And, this is precisely the context in which we ought to join Bolton in carefully scrutinizing the relationship between North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which are important chessmen for the game skilfully played by the PRC.

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