Joshua PollackNorth Korean-Iranian Cooperation

Earlier this week, the appearance of an Iranian-style nosecone on a North Korean missile raised eyebrows all over the wonk-o-sphere. That the two countries cooperate in missile development is not exactly new news, but the images from Kim Il Sung Square gave eloquent testimony to this relationship.

But just how far does the technical collaboration extend? Is it confined to ballistic missiles, or is there a nuclear angle as well?

As it turns out, Iran and North Korea have signed a series of three-year plans for “cultural and scientific exchange.” KCNA has announced three of these, with the most recent signing taking place this past April in Pyongyang. The contents of the plans have not been publicized.

The two countries also exchange ideas in the sphere of defense. The striking photograph shown above documents an April 18, 2009 meeting at Pyongyang’s Taedonggang Diplomatic Corps Club in honor of Iran’s Army Day. (Yes, those are portraits of President Kim Il Sung and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the respective revolutionary founders, on the wall.) According to IRNA, IRI military attache Ashgar Rezaiepour gave a speech describing the Iranian military’s defense strategy as based on “deterrence, revolutionary spirit, and tireless self-sufficiency,” or words to that effect.* These principles would sound familiar to North Koreans, for whom songun (military-first policy), deterrence, “wholehearted unity,” and juche (autonomy) are national slogans. But for the North Koreans, deterrence is nuclear in character.

(*That’s the best I can do with Google Translate; readers are invited to jump in with improvements.)

All of this comes by way of introducing my new paper, just published by 38 North: North Korea’s Nuclear Exports: On What Terms? One of the possibilities it raises is that North Korea and Iran might conclude a barter arrangement for nuclear materials and technology.

The paper is necessarily speculative, since any such activity would be a secret, and relatively little is known about how North Korea has built its nuclear program or shared it with others. But there’s more published information on the subject than I’d previously realized. I’ve tried to pull it together and make sense of it.

Regardless of the past, present, or future of Iranian-North Korean dealings, one broad conclusion emerges: barters are a very important vector of proliferation. Along with buying, stealing, or independently replicating key technologies and materials, proliferators also trade them back and forth, and have done so more often than is generally understood. This problem ought to rank at least as high as cash sales of nuclear technology among the concerns of policy-makers.

Update. The post has been corrected — see comments.

Late Update. In the interests of perfectionism, I’ve also come up with a pithier translation for “juche.”


  1. Mehdi (History)

    The translation is OK, but that photo belongs to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
    Most religious Iranians will find it offending to see those two photos together. A highly regarded religious leader together with an Atheist oppressor.

    • joshua (History)

      I believe you’re right and have made the correction. [It’s Khomeini and not Khamene’i.] Thanks.

    • Mohammad (History)

      It seems that this picture has went unnoticed in the Iranian media. Otherwise it could create an uproar to force IRNA to remove it from its website.
      I remember a newspaper being sharply criticized several years ago (or maybe shut down, I don’t remember the specifics) just for putting pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Adolph Hitler on the same page in two separate, unrelated articles. (Or maybe it wasn’t a picture of Khomeini, just a mention or something similar, I’m not sure about the details.)

    • joshua (History)

      IRNA did in fact remove this and other pictures from the article when they reorganized their web archive. I don’t know if that was intentional or not.

  2. Anon (History)

    There likely is nuclear weapons research collaboration between the two, and yes, barters are important.

    In NK’s case it clearly violated its IAEA CSA and then withdrew from the NPT.

    In Iran’s case it is unclear that any research on nukes is in violation of its CSA since there has been no known diversion of nuclear materials required to be safeguarded. So you may well be right but, unfortunately, there is little we can really do about it — The IAEA admitted to this when it said:

    (paragraph 52 of the Feb 2006 IAEA report on Iran)

    “[A]bsent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited.”

    • joshua (History)

      “Research on nukes,” meaning nuclear weapons, would be a violation of Article II of the NPT for a non-nuclear weapons state. By comparison, safeguards noncompliance is an NPT Article III issue. Remember, Iran is party to more than its CSA.

      But just for good measure, I would point out that ElBaradei’s construction of the Agency’s authority could narrow beyond the letter of the law at times. Not everyone shared his views. And he’s no longer there.

      And what we can do about it is another question.

    • Anon (History)

      Joshua, As best as I can surmise, the text of Article II focuses on receiving assistance from others in making devices, not on the study of nuclear physics or the study of nuclear engineering that goes into making nuclear weapons.

      I would agree with you if Iran received hardware from NK, but knowledge itself is difficult to restrict.

      From the NPT:

      “Article II

      Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

    • joshua (History)

      Suffice it to say for now that there is a long story concerning the interpretation of Art. II. I don’t claim to be deeply versed in it. A good place to start is Mohamed Shaker’s multi-volume work.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    On the terms of the Syrian reactor deal, the 24 April 2008 ODNI background briefing has

    Q: And North Korean intentions? Cash?


    Q: So they weren’t going to be taking this -[Sentence unfinished, but the moderator seems to be intending to ask if the North Koreans were going to be the recipients of the plutonium.]

    SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL 2: We examined that. We examined that hypothesis. This just wasn’t –

    SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL 2: – you know, a reactor in Syria for Syria, that it may be outsourcing. And our judgment based on the overwhelming body of evidence is it was A, not B. That it was in Syria for Syria.
    SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL 2: I’m sorry. Yeah, you’re right. [The Senior Administration Official] is correcting me. Option A was in Syria for North Korea; option B was in Syria for Syria. We think it was in Syria for Syria, although we examined both options and held it up to the light with the available evidence.

    Q: How much money is it in for North Korea?

    SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL 2: Not at liberty to say.

    (I think the SIOs were probably the DNI and DCIA.)

    While the “cash” replies look unequivocal and the “not at liberty to say” seems to imply actual knowledge of the amount of money involved, the overall context leads me to believe that the US didn’t have certain knowledge of the terms of the deal.

    • joshua (History)

      That sounds about right. They weren’t certain and had to take a hard look at the question.

      There’s very little evidence that we, the public, can examine for ourselves, but what there is strikes me as ambiguous. (It’s detailed in the paper.) In the end, I wind up concluding that we probably should think of it as (largely?) a cash deal, but am not entirely sure of it.

      In the paper, I present three alternative hypotheses: 1) essentially everything nuclear exported by North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s was for cash; 2) essentially everything was for barter; 3) and transfers of uranium-enrichment-related and weapons-related technology to Pakistan were for barter while the transfer of plutonium-production-related technology to Syria was for cash.

      I’d give them the following order of likelihood: 3, 2, 1. But I’m not prepared to reject any of them with complete confidence. When it comes to North Korea, you have to allow for uncertainty.

  4. Dan Joyner (History)

    Josh, I actually have to disagree with your statement that research on nuclear weapons would be a violation of Article II of the NPT for NNWS. Article II broadly forbids the acquisition of nuclear explosive devices, their manufacture or the receipt of assistance in their manufacture by NNWS. However, even the famous purposive Foster Criteria dont go so far as to label all nuclear weapons research a violation of Article II for NNWS.

    In 1975, Japan argued that NW related research and design is not prohibited by Article II short of the actual manufacture of a nuclear explosive device.(see cite below for this document). I would add that the manufacture of single-use components for a nuclear explosive device is probably also a violation of Article II’s prohibition on manufacture. But with that caveat, I think the Japanese position is a correct statement of interpretation of NPT Article II.

    Dan Joyner

    (See “Arms Control Implications of Peaceful Nuclear Explosions,” working paper submitted to Geneva disarmament conference by Japan, CCD/454, 7 July 1975 (Arms Control and Disarmament Agency [ACDA] Documents on Disarmament, 1975)

  5. joshua (History)

    There’s another point I should have made in the post. There are few credible assertions of past or ongoing Iran-North Korea nuclear cooperation. There have been claims in the German and Israeli media that Iran was somehow involved in the Syrian reactor project, perhaps by financing it. (There are other possibilities one could imagine as well.) I also found this 2005 Reuters story interesting, although it’s very difficult to judge the accuracy of the report it describes.

    Putting that aside, most of the discussion in the paper is based on inferences from North Korean and Iranian interests and needs; their pattern of collaboration, especially on missiles; and their records of dealing with others in this area.

    I don’t mean to give the impression that this is the sole subject of the paper, but it’s an under-examined question, and one worth highlighting here.

  6. joshua (History)

    Here are a couple of other data points on Iran-NK nuclear cooperation. An Aug. 4, 2003 story by the LA Times’s Douglas Frantz (which repeatedly cites intelligence sources) states:

    “North Korean military scientists recently were monitored entering Iranian nuclear facilities. They are assisting in the design of a nuclear warhead, according to people inside Iran and foreign intelligence officials. So many North Koreans are working on nuclear and missile projects in Iran that a resort on the Caspian coast is set aside for their exclusive use.”

    But on this same point, here’s Senior Intelligence Official 1 from the background briefing of Apr. 24, 2008:

    “The only thing that the Iranians halted that we had awareness of was design of the warhead. They continue with ballistic missiles and they continue with fissile material pursuit. It was a secret program that they halted. They have never admitted that. So one of our concerns is, is there a connection with North Korea? If there is, we don’t know it.”

    For a variety of reasons, not least of all the contradiction between these sources, one wonders if the LA Times passage actually was describing collaboration on a reentry vehicle, not a warhead.

  7. rwendland (History)

    Joshua, this 38north paper is an interesting read. But I’m not sure about the “Yongbyon bears a strong resemblance to the Tokai Power Station” (in Japan) statement. Seems to me North Korea’s first two GCR’s (at least) are much closer to the Calder Hall design than Tokai. Besides Tokai (587 MWt) being very much larger than the Yongbyon GCRs (~25 and ~200 MWt), Tokai has a spherical pressure vessel, whereas both Calder Hall and the Yongbyon GCRs used simpler cylindrical pressure vessels suited to lower CO2 pressures.

    I’ve read that the UK openly published quite a lot of info on Calder Hall, though I have not personally verified what level of detail was in the open literature. This was both because of the “Atoms for Peace” culture of openness, and that the UK at that time expected Magnox GCRs to be a big nuclear power export opportunity! So I’m not sure if NK needed that much espionage information.

    The third NK GCR at Taechon (200 MWe) was of a similar power rating to Tokai (166 MWe), so perhaps took from the Tokai design rather than a UK design. I don’t think it is known if Taechon was intended to have a high pressure spherical pressure vessel made with ~100mm thick steel, more suited for power production. It would be interesting to know – from analysing the technical parameters we could see if NK was genuinely working toward using GCRs for power production, as the UK did, or was simply optimised for plutonium production.

    Given the vast decommissioning costs for Magnox-style GCRs, and reprocessing plant, ultimately NK will be grateful that the Agreed Framework put an early stop to a large GCR programme! Calder Hall decommissioning costs are estimated at a little over £1 billion. Sellafield (3 reprocessing plants + other lesser stuff) has a decommissioning estimate of £30 billion. Plutonium programmes have vast tail-end costs on top of the large initial costs.

    • joshua (History)

      Very interesting observations — thanks for the feedback.

      The primary resemblance between Tokai and the Yongbyon 5MW(e), besides the basic choice of technology, is in the layout and proportions of the main building. They are clearly not identical inside. The power rating alone says as much.

      (Another resemblance is their orientation — they both face the same way, a few degrees off the cardinal points, as if someone had picked up an existing floor plan and started drawing on it. However, I’ve come to believe that this is mere coincidence; the Yongbyon reactor is simply oriented to the grid of the surrounding complex, which follows the line of the Kuryong River.)

      If you compare the external appearance of Calder Hall reactors built at different times, you’ll see they vary quite a bit. Yongbyon looks much, much more like Tokai than any another Calder Hall.


      (I assume you already realize this, but just for clarity’s sake, Tokai is a unique type of Calder Hall reactor built by the General Electric company of the UK.)

      Having said all that, the sources and inspirations for North Korea’s nuclear facilities seem to be plural. The never-completed second and third gas-graphite reactors bear a greater resemblance to French UNGG gas-graphite reactors than the British Calder Hall type: the fuel and control rods would have been installed horizontally, not vertically, and the buildings have long, shed-like layouts, rather than the “wedding cake” appearance of the 5MW(e) reactor. I have not identified any particular UNGG reactors that closely resemble either of these buildings, though.

  8. rwendland (History)

    Joshua, if you are correct that the NK 50 and 200 MWe reactors were to use horizontal fuelling, then indeed the UNGG reactors would be the model, not UK Magnox (including Tokai). I’ve not come across anyone publishing the technical parameters for these two reactors – do you have a solid source for the horizontal fuelling claim? I must say that both the GlobalSecurity and Google Earth imagery of the current Taechon concrete structures very, very much suggest a vertically fuelled design to me, so I have large doubts about that.

    Google Earth: 39.9277,125.5692

    I don’t think we should be looking at the superficial concrete structures, but the essential technical parameters, in evaluating the heritage of the NK reactors. eg developing a table of technical parameters:

    site: Calder-Hall / Yongbyon-5MWe / Tokai

    pressure vessel type: cylinder / cylinder / spherical
    steel thickness: 50mm / 40mm / 90mm
    CO2 pressure: 6.9bar / ? / ~14bar

    More interesting still would be the exact way the graphite bricks are arranged and interlocked. For Calder Hall the nuclear graphite expansion characteristics were not fully understood, and as a consequence the design changed substantially over the following designs; first extra zirconium interlocking pins, then substantially different brick designs. Where the NK reactors fit in this development line would be most illuminating.

    It would be very interesting for someone to spend a few days in a good library to see what exactly was published about the Magnox design in the nuclear journals and IAEA technical assistance by about 1975, when NK would have started detailed design. For example two of my sources below were published by then. The 1965 Fuji paper on how they constructed the Tokai spherical pressure vessel for example includes the chemical specification of the steel plate and welding rods used, and the annealing rates – not to mention some nice photos and diagrams. I’m quite doubtful NK would need espionage to get started.

    • joshua (History)

      On the question of horizontal fueling, I’m following the IISS dossier on North Korea’s nuclear programs. You’re right, though, the shell of the Taechon reactor is quite different from the Yongbyon 50 MW(e).

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