by Stephen Bryen
No matter what you think of the Singapore summit, one country is definitely missing and its absence is of deepest concern. The country is Iran.
There isn’t much point in denuclearizing North Korea if the end-result is that the technology, know how and key personnel are shipped off to Tehran.
For years now, probably 20 or more North Korea and Iran have been actively cooperating on both missiles and nuclear technology. Iran’s longest range missiles, the Shahab 3B is based on North Korea’s Nodong-1 series and has been much improved. The missile today has a new reentry nose assembly and is capable of changing course to evade intercepts using rocket nozzle steering. The missile can hit targets in most of the Middle East and strike as far as southern and eastern Europe and even hit targets in Russia and India. Shahab 3B can carry a single warhead of 1 metric ton, or multiple warheads. With this size payload, Shahab is capable of being fitted with small nuclear weapons.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea had been testing small nuclear warheads, aside from the last blast which may have been a plutonium-fueled nuclear test. The small weapons tests look like uranium atomic bombs. From what has been observed about North Korean rocket tests, the biggest obstacle facing deployment of nuclear capable missiles is a competent reentry vehicle.
Iran extensively cooperates with North Korea and both countries built a Youngbyon-reactor clone in Syria which was destroyed finally by Israel in2007. Cooperation with Iranian and Syrian scientists became clear in the Ryongchon train disaster in 2004. Today it is all but certain that the train was bombed using an explosive device tied to a cell phone trigger. Such a cell phone was found near the site and North Korea banned cell phones for some five years after the explosion. The intent of the attack most likely was to kill the Syrian (and likely Iranian personnel who may have been shipped home on a Syrian military plane with the bodies of the Syrian scientists killed) who were probably heading into North Korea from China. What changed the overall dimension of the train explosion was the fact that in addition to the scientists the train was carrying explosive materials, most likely ammonium nitrite, which is used as a fertilizer, as a replacement for TNT, as a rocket fuel and for explosives. Ammonium nitrite was used in the Oklahoma City truck bomb that destroyed the entire front part of the multi-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. In Ryongchon the blast not only destroyed the train but caused significant damage in the surrounding area, killing some 160 people and wounding 1,300. Most notably, the bodies of the Syrian scientists were shipped home in lead-lined coffins, suggesting the bodies were highly radioactive. If the reports are true, then along with explosives the train (or the scientists) were transporting a large amount of enriched uranium or plutonium.
If there was a large amount of enriched uranium on board the Ryongchon train and proximate to the Syrian scientists on board, and since the train was coming from the Chinese border, it follows that the uranium was being brought by the scientists for use in tests carried out in North Korea. Syria has neither uranium nor uranium enrichment capabilities. Iran has set up centrifuge “farms” to enrich uranium. In early June Iran signaled the IAEA that it intended to step up production of feed-stocks for its centrifuges, something it can do under the so-called nuclear deal (JCPOA). (The feed-stock for a centrifuge is uranium hexaflouride.)
Youngbyon can produce plutonium (Pu-239) from uranium (U-238). How much plutonium it can produce isn’t known, but until recently a plutonium fueled bomb seemed out of reach for both Iran and North Korea. If this assessment is right, then the quickest way to get workable nuclear weapons is with a uranium bomb, similar to what was dropped on Hiroshima. The fact that all but the most recent blast was in that category means that what the North Koreans were doing is exploding uranium (atomic) bombs, and that the fuel for them was likely coming from Iran.
(As a historical footnote, the U.S. had only one uranium bomb which was never tested and which was used against Hiroshima. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was a plutonium device and it had been tested. The U.S. had other plutonium atomic weapons in its early arsenal before hydrogen bombs were developed. There was in 1944 and 1945 a major enriched uranium shortage which is why the plutonium bomb became the expedient way to get an atomic weapon. Iran, however, is in pursuit of both uranium and plutonium weapons.)
As far as Syria, Iran and North Korea are concerned, they are partners. The al-Kibar reactor destroyed by Israel was financed by Iran (an investment of at least $1 billion).
There are a number of reasons to take the uranium route. Iran has the hardware to produce highly enriched uranium (typically 90 to 95% enriched U-235). Making a bomb with uranium is far simpler than a plutonium bomb because a U-235 fueled bomb requires only a gun-type mechanism to set off an atomic blast, while a plutonium fueled bomb requires a complex triggering mechanism and very high precision assembly.
It would seem with the Singapore agreement, North Korea could turn around the deal with Iran and ship its technology to Iran along with its scientists. The ballistic missiles that hit Saudi Arabia fired from Yemen allegedly by the Houthis (but probably by the Iranians) are full of electronics and other components manufactured in Iran. (The alleged Houthi missiles were shipped in sections to Yemen and welded together in the field, probably to conceal the transshipments from satellite observation.)
What this means is that North Korea could continue its nuclear development and work on improving its missile technology situated in Iran. At any moment in future, North Korea could bring home its nuclear weapons and even its missiles and re-emerge as a significant nuclear power. Likewise it means that Iran can do the same thing.
Consequently the Singapore deal must include prohibitions on North Korean cooperation with Iran or with any other dangerous state, such as Syria or even Iraq or Lebanon especially if Iran gains significant political and military control of these countries (which already seems to be the case in Syria and Lebanon). The US must consider pushing the Iranians out of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as urgently as it can and it needs to get iron-clad assurances North Korea will stop all missile and nuclear cooperation with Iran or its partners.