Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pyongyang Deepens Tehran Ties With Suspected Arms Exports

Gordon Fairclough, The Wall Street Journal:
Late last year, a freighter from North Korea docked at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf to make a special delivery. Its cargo, senior U.S. and Asian officials say: more than a dozen intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

It was the first of at least two shipments of one of the newest missiles in the North Korean arsenal, U.S. officials say. The arms were adapted from a Soviet-era weapon, known in the West as the SS-N-6 and originally designed to launch nuclear warheads from submarines.

The delivery to the country Washington considers its single biggest threat -- together with yesterday's barrage of missile test-launches -- shows Pyongyang is increasingly willing to use its missile technology as a way to stand up to the U.S. and its allies.

North Korea's exports to Iran also mark a significant deepening of longstanding ties between Pyongyang and Tehran as international pressure mounts on the two governments to curb their nuclear ambitions, U.S. and Asian officials and analysts say. READ MORE

"There's a certain solidarity developing between these two members of the axis of evil," says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, referring to President Bush's description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union address.

North Korea's ability to complete the weapons transfer to Iran also demonstrates the limitations of the Bush administration's efforts to block shipments of weapons of mass destruction and the components needed to make them.

U.S. intelligence was suspicious about the shipments but didn't attempt to halt them, despite urging from Israel, which is very concerned about Iran's missile program, American officials say. U.S. officials say they didn't stop the first shipment because they couldn't be sure missiles were aboard.

"We track a lot of boats, but it's hard to know what's in them," says a U.S. official, explaining why neither of the two deliveries was stopped. "Even if you do, you may not have the authority under international law to do anything about it."

Officials in Asia and the U.S. now say they do believe the missiles were actually delivered.

The seven missiles launched this week didn't include the SS-N-6-based weapon, according to early analysis by the U.S., another American official says.

North Korea sent Scud missiles to Iran in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But from the mid-1990s, under pressure from Washington, Pyongyang was believed to have stopped shipments of whole missiles and limited its assistance to supplying parts and expertise to help build weapons in Iran.

If the U.S. and Asian officials are correct, North Korea has restarted exports to Iran of complete weapons. The SS-N-6-based missiles also represent a technological leap from earlier Iranian and North Korean arms, with a propulsion system capable of lofting heavier loads over longer distances, U.S. officials say.

North Korean technicians are stationed in Iran to help Tehran build missiles, and the two countries share data gleaned from test launches, U.S. officials say.

North Korea isn't believed to have conducted any test launches of the new surface-to-surface missile. Analysts say it likely has a range of more than 1,800 miles, which would give it the ability to reach targets, including U.S. military bases, in Japan and South Korea if fired from North Korea.

A diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing said reports of arms shipments "aren't credible," adding: "We don't think it's necessary to comment."

In June the deputy head of North Korea's United Nations mission, Han Song Ryol, said in an interview with South Korea's Yonhap news service that as a sovereign state, North Korea has "the right to develop, deploy, test-fire and export a missile."

The latest addition to Iran's missile force is a particular concern to Israel. Iran already has missiles that can reach Israel, but many analysts regard them as relatively inaccurate and unreliable. Israel's head of military intelligence asserted in April that Iran had received missiles from North Korea.

"It's a big deal," says a senior U.S. official. "If someone is building a nuclear capability and they have a delivery system that works, it could change the decision-making dynamic for the people who feel most threatened."

Washington accuses Iran of working to develop atomic arms under the guise of a civilian nuclear-power program. The U.S. and five other countries have offered Iran a package of incentives if it agrees to forgo uranium enrichment, and have threatened penalties if it doesn't comply. Tehran, which denies that it has any plan to produce nuclear weapons, has said it is considering the proposal.

North Korea, on the other hand, asserts that it already has a "nuclear deterrent force" and says it is working to expand its arsenal. The U.S., along with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, has engaged in a series of on-again, off-again talks with North Korea in an effort to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its atomic programs in exchange for economic and energy aid as well as security guarantees.

Since late last year, North Korea has refused to return to the negotiating table, citing threatened U.S. sanctions against a bank in the Chinese enclave of Macau that Washington says has helped Pyongyang launder money and pass counterfeit U.S. currency.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at