The North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean- controlled island has returned the secretive “Democratic Peoples’ Republic” of North Korea to world headlines. A casual observer might assume that the drama on the Korean peninsula is of little relevance to the strategic process in the Middle East. A casual observer would be wrong.
This latest evidence of the North Korean regime’s unique approach to its relations with the rest of the world matters a great deal to the Middle East, and particularly to Israel. This is because Pyongyang is a key armorer and facilitator of the Iran-led “resistance axis.”
North Korea is a militarily-advanced state which has placed itself outside of the boundaries and the rules of the international system.
The fact that it is willing to provide weapons and knowledge to anyone that can pay for it is a key element in facilitating the Iran-led axis’s challenge to order in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, a UN report revealing North Korean provision of nuclear and ballistic materials to Iran and Syria was published. The report had been compiled and completed in May. China, which acts as Pyongyang’s protector on the international stage, acted to prevent its publication.
The report indicated that North Korea has employed clandestine means, including the use of “multiple layers of intermediaries, shell companies and financial institutions,” to “provide missiles, components and technology to certain countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The report went on to detail how North Korea uses a range of “masking techniques” to conceal transactions, including containers with false declarations of contents and ships with false routes and destinations. It contended that four specific cases “not in compliance with the law, involving the export of arms” have surfaced since the last round of sanctions was imposed on Pyongyang in June 2009.
The UN report appeared also to confirm earlier allegations that the North Koreans were responsible for building the Syrian plutonium reactor destroyed by IAF aircraft at al-Kibar in September 2007.
While not specifically relating to this facility, it states that North Korea has “provided assistance for a nuclear program in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari has said that Iran helped finance the participation of North Korean personnel in the destroyed Syrian reactor.
Iranian scientists were also present at the site, the goal of which was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korean assistance also plays a vital role in the Iranian missile program.
Teheran’s Shihab missile project is a product of the relationship.
The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile series. Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines from North Korea in 1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3.
The Shihab-3, which has a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel within range.
Iranian officials were present at the testing of the advanced Taepodong- 2 missile in North Korea in July 2006. This missile is the basis for the Iranian development of the Shihab-6, which has not yet been tested.
These are intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic missile systems, thought to have a range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.
One report has also suggested that Iran and North Korea are jointly seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the Nodong/Shihab-3, which would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.
In addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the presence of North Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in attempts to develop a nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range ballistic missiles such as the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was cited by Agence France Presse.
There have also been claims by serious researchers of a North Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah underground tunnel network which played a vital role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
A wealth of evidence thus exists to indicate that Iran, Syria and almost certainly Hizbullah are direct and substantial beneficiaries of North Korean weaponry and know-how. North Korean involvement with Iran and its allies encompasses both the conventional and nonconventional arenas.
The latest sensational disclosure of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant will serve to further concentrate minds regarding Pyongyang’s activities in the Middle East. While North Korea was known to have enough weaponized plutonium to produce six atomic bombs, this is the first evidence to have emerged of potential for a uranium- based weapons program.
North Korea is obviously not motivated by any ideological affinity with Iran and its allies. It might be argued that the regime shares certain common points with Bashar Assad’s Syria.
Both countries are republican monarchies, family dictatorships ironically ruled in the name of supposedly egalitarian ideologies.
But Pyongyang is not seeking partners for the construction of socialism in the Middle East. It is limping under UN sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program. So it is seeking hard cash, fast and with no questions asked.
The events on the border between the Koreas this week cast into bold relief just how bizarre and unpredictable this regime is. The strategic game in the Middle East is much bigger than North Korea, of course. But ending this regime’s ability to arm and train the most destructive forces in the Middle East must form a key interim goal in containing and rolling back the Iran-led “resistance axis” which is the key challenge currently facing Western policy in the region.