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The North Korea-Iran-Syria illicit procurement network

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While international focus over the last week has concentrated on North Korea’s nuclear testing, the proliferation activities of its non-conventional weapons and missile technology continues unabated and its clandestine cooperation with Syria and Iran constitutes a significant threat to stability in the Middle East.

North Korea has been able to develop a global procurement network, which includes clients as far reaching as Cuba, Uganda, Yemen, Peru to name a few, as a direct result of the international community’s failure to apply sufficiently resilient proliferations-based sanctions against the state and its activities.

Syria’s non-conventional weapon and missile programmes, as well as Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, have developed in parallel spaces to the inspection regimes (such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Missile Technology Control Regime to name a few) the international community has built over the years and therefore rely on illicit procurement networks such as the one offered by North Korea.

North Korea has invested heavily in filling the void left by the discovery of the clandestine procurement network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. In doing so, it offers prospective partners military goods and services at dramatically reduced prices or in exchange for political support. There is ironclad evidence of a long-term relationship between North Korea, Iran and Syria to transfer nuclear and ballistic missile technology.

Preventing the sharing and transfer of such technology is vital because, as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said to AEI this week, “missile technology cannot be separated from the pursuit of a nuclear weapon” – and a nuclear warhead is only as useful as the missile system it sits upon.

If left unchecked, these supply networks could feed greater international instability and greater destruction in future conflicts. A good example is Syria: the civil war has demonstrated the devastating consequences that regimes can inflict on its own population when it has non-conventional weaponry at its disposal. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported on Wednesday that there have been more than “25 documented cases of chemical weapons use in the Syrian Arab Republic, of which 20 were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians”. This week marks 10 years since Israel reportedly carried out a pre-emptive strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor. Just imagine the fear and instability if the government possessed nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

North Korean cooperation with both Syria and Iran goes back decades.

Ties between the North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile programmes began in 1985 when Iran financed North Korea’s Scud-B development programme in exchange for the option to purchase production models. That investment bore dividends in 1991 when North Korea developed the 500-kilometer range Scud-C missile and sold the weapon and its technology back to Iran and Syria.

Over the following two decades both missile programmes evolved in tandem. The North Korea’s Nodong, Taepodong-129 and Taepodong-230 missiles formed the basis for Iran’s Shahab-331, Shahab-432, and Shahab-5/633 missiles, respectively, and the two countries have collaborated closely on the development of a nuclear-capable ICBM — the Taepodong-2 and the Shahab-6.

The relationship between their respective nuclear weapons programmes is less easily visible, mainly due to North Korea’s programme being based on plutonium production and Iran’s on uranium enrichment, but strong indicators of the two sides’ cooperation exist nevertheless. Several Western intelligence services reported in 2013 that Iranian nuclear experts were present at the Punggyeri test site to witness North Korea’s third atomic test, and in 2015 a seven-member North Korean delegation, comprised of experts in nuclear warhead design and ballistic missiles, spent the last week of April 2015 in Iran, allegedly the third such nuclear and missile team to visit Iran in 2015.

This illicit network makes the intensive IAEA inspections regime under the JCPOA meaningless if the goal of the nuclear agreement is to reduce Iran’s breakout capability.

The North Korea–Syria relationship dates back even further and is believed to have begun in the 1970s where North Korea reportedly sent pilots to fly Syrian jets in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1991, North Korea began to deliver Scud-C missiles and launchers as well as provide production technology for the system so that it could be indigenously manufactured in factories near Aleppo and Hama.

In 2007 Israel reportedly destroyed a Syrian structure that a 2011 IAEA report said “was very likely a nuclear reactor”. A US intelligence official stated during an April 2008 briefing that “North Korea has assisted Syria with this reactor,” and a 2014 State Department report concluded the “reactor’s intended purpose” was to produce plutonium.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, there have been numerous indicators of a thriving military relationship between the two countries. In 2012, South Korean authorities seized a large North Korean-arranged consignment of graphite cylinders bound for the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), the organisation responsible not only for the development, production, and munitions integration of chemical agents, but also the means of their delivery systems.

As an IHS Jane’s report noted, the SSRC’s missile development “is now irrefutably dependent on external support – particularly, although not solely, through direct technical co-operation and technology acquisition with Iran and North Korea,” including North Korea assistance to upgrade the re-entry vehicle and guidance systems for extended-range Scud-D missiles.

In July this year a Syrian opposition media outlet published images and information on an active ballistic missile factory in Syria, and included a report by a worker from the site claiming it to be a joint project between the North Korean, Iranian, and Syrian governments.

While the international focus remains on the Korean Peninsula and questions over North Korea’s arsenal abound, the international community shouldn’t take its eye off the ball regarding the very real threats from sophisticated technology transfers. Such transfer can turn rogue states into very dangerous transnational threats that extend beyond their borders.

Samuel Nurding is Research Analyst at BICOM.