North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs

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October 5, 2006

Upcoming DPRK Nuclear Tests Are Integral to Iranian Strategic Move, But Also Force Western Acknowledgement of Impotence to Deal With New Nuclear Threats

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. The statement by the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Ministry on October 3, 2006, that the DPRK would soon detonate a nuclear weapon — as exclusively predicted by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs on September 5, 2006 — should be seen in the context of the DPRK-Iran strategic alliance. Given current conditions, this would mean that, concurrently with the nuclear tests, Iran would make a strategic move of its own in the Middle East, possibly in line with earlier indications of a move against Israel in some form.

The September 5, 2006, report noted:

... [A]s of the early hours of September 5, 2006, East Asian Time, the special train of DPRK leader Kim Jong-il was known to be in the city of Sinuiju, in the North Pyongan Province, just across the border from Dandong, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Normally, when Kim makes a rail visit to the PRC, Dandong is put on an Urgent Situation notice for the passage of the DPRK special train. Dandong, as of September 5, 2006, was not on Urgent Situation notice.

Moreover, North Pyongan Province is the site of considerable DPRK nuclear weapons work, including a “hole” which could be being prepared for an underground nuclear test explosion. Iranian officials were also understood to be in the area.

On September 12, 2006, in a report entitled Indications Persist that DPRK Moving Toward Underground N-Tests, Despite PRC, Russian Opposition, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs reported: “High-level sources in Pyongyang have intimated that the DPRK Government may press ahead soon with an underground nuclear detonation, merely to establish, beyond doubt, that it has a military nuclear capability. This follows exclusive reporting on September 5, 2006, that the DPRK was moving toward an underground nuclear test and new tests of its missile-based national command authority (NCA).”

Reliable Iranian and other sources have indicated that the DPRK leadership, including leader Kim Jong-Il, has been concerned that both DPRK and Iranian claims, hints, and evidence of their nuclear weapons possession have been mis-read/downplayed or ignored by the West, and the leadership of both states feel that a clear, unambiguous demonstration of their military nuclear capabilities would guarantee that the US would not attempt a military strike against them. It is possible that the DPRK may also repeat a demonstration of its national command authority (NCA) capabilities, including further missile launches. At least one nuclear-capable TaepoDong-2 medium-range ballistic missile is in launch position at present.

The reason for US-led “denial” of North Korean and Iranian military nuclear capability has not been that the US Government, for example, was unaware of the DPRK’s indigenous nuclear weapons deployment, or Iran’s acquisition of foreign (ex-Soviet and ex-DPRK) nuclear weapons, but rather the reality that acknowledgement of the weapons would automatically lead to political pressure for US leaders to “do something about” the “new threat”. US Pres. George W. Bush, for example, was reportedly angered — in the run-up to his assumption of office (ie: prior to 2001) — by the failure of the previous William Clinton Administration to accept intelligence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and “do something about them”. However, on taking office, Pres. Bush reportedly came under real pressure from within his Administration to continue the posture of denying that North Korea and Iran had nuclear weapons because the US had no mechanisms to actual do anything to disarm those states.

Washington’s position on the denials solidified as it became clear that Pyongyang (and Tehran) were clearly unswayed either by threats or promises over their nuclear programs. But DPRK and Iranian officials could not put aside their concerns that perhaps the US really did not believe that they had deployed nuclear weapons, despite the highly-sophisticated demonstrations of launch vehicles and secure NCA structures to ensure not only first-strike but hardened and mobile second-strike capabilities.

This analyst, several years ago, met with a US Assistant Secretary of State to inform him of intelligence on the DPRK and Iranian nuclear weapons programs, and the official indicated a powerlessness to effect any change in US policies on the matter. And the US policy of denial continued.

The forthcoming DPRK nuclear tests, then, would serve two strategic purposes: the first would be to ensure that the DPRK “poison pill” strategy would be unambiguous, ensuring, from the DPRK standpoint, that the US would not attack North Korea; and, secondly, to ensure that Iran has strategic cover — caused by the distraction of US and international attention to East Asia during such tests — to undertake some new maneuver to strengthen its position in the Middle East. The only unknown is what the Iranian move may be; not whether such a move will occur, but what it will be. Iranian officials were in the DPRK as an integral part of the “management” of the earlier NCA tests, and not merely because of the DPRK-Iranian agreement to provide strategic diversions for each other. The NCA structures in both Iran and the DPRK appear to be similar, or identical in many respects, indicating that Iran’s own strategic weapons program only lags behind the DPRK’s from the standpoint of domestic production of nuclear weapons.

Iran still relies on imported nuclear weapons.

The September 27, 2004, report noted: “Current exercises underway in Iran and the DPRK (North Korea) involving nuclear weapon-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles indicate major changes in command, control and communications (C3) in both countries, changes in strategic doctrine, shared weapons technologies, and coordinated timing of exercises in order to achieve joint strategic impact. As well, the ongoing developments almost certainly indicate the presence of more deployed nuclear warheads by the DPRK and Iran than was previously acknowledged by US intelligence statements.”

On May 13, 2005, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky, in a report entitled Nuclear Spring: The Impact of the Fall Of Baghdad on Pyongyang’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy, noted:

Spring 2005 found the DPRK driven into hardening its nuclear strategy — primarily the declaratory adoption of preemption and deep-strike strategy against the continental US — solely because of the Bush Administration’s adamant refusal to face reality and deal with Pyongyang’s real concerns and objectives. Significantly, the changes in the DPRK’s nuclear weapons strategy are based on Pyongyang’s internalizing and implementing its lessons of the US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Administration in Iraq in Spring 2003. 

The DPRK crossed the nuclear threshold in the early 1990s, and by the Spring of 1992 made sure that all potential friends and foes had no doubt of the country’s rudimentary nuclear weapons capabilities. For the first decade, Pyongyang’s  nuclear strategy was essentially a political instrument separated from, but still shielding, the non-nuclear (including CBW) offensive military strategy optimized toward launching a new Korean War, the “liberating” and “reunifying” the Korean Peninsula. The scenario for the possible use of the DPRK’s few nuclear weapons in case of a major crisis was based on threatening a surprise first-strike against a few select objectives in South Korea and Japan in order to deter further US and allied intervention in an unfolding Korean war.

Iran’s own nuclear weapons acquisition trail has attempted to build indigenous weapons, and this very expensive process has not yet produced viable results, despite substantial help from the DPRK, former Pakistani officials, and others, which has meant that the acquisition of completed, foreign-manufactured weapons has been the shortest route to developing the Iranian nuclear “poison pill” strategy. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs has covered this process extensively in Iran since 1991, when Iran acquired its first nuclear weapons, from Kazakhstan, during the break-up of the USSR. The US State Department attempted to discredit Defense & Foreign Affairs when the first exclusive reports of the Kazakh weapons reaching Iran was published by the organization, but State Dept. officials later privately recanted the attacks on Defense & Foreign Affairs, admitting that the US Government, if it acknowledged the existence of the weapons, would be obliged to “do something about them”, and had no strategy to, in fact, undertake such a mission.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, February 1992: Iran Acquires Nuclear Weapons And Moves To Provide Cover to Syria, which also appears in the GIS archives.

In a report on March 7, 2006, entitled Iran Achieves Multi-Tiered Military Nuclear Readiness, Ignored by Washington, recapping much of the Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition program, Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky noted:

In the wake of the Gulf Crisis of 1990-91, Tehran concluded that only nuclear weapons and strategic strike capabilities could deter the US from intervening militarily to contain the ascent of the Iran-led Islamist-jihadist trend. Shortly afterwards, in late 1991, Iran purchased its first operational nuclear weapons from ex-Soviet Central Asia. The deal included the following nuclear weapons:

(1) Two 40kt warheads for a SCUD-type ballistic missile, that should fit on any SSM that is a derivative of the basic SCUD, and were in operational status;

(2) One aerial bomb of the type carried by a MiG-27 that was in operational status; and

(3) One 152mm nuclear artillery shell that was at an unclear operational status and was later transferred to the PRC.

These weapons reached initial operational status in late January 1992, and a full status by April. In October 1992, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i  made an inspection tour of the key military facilities in Isfahan and ascertained the country’s nuclear operational capabilities.

That report also went on to detail later Iranian nuclear weapons acquisitions, including: “Most significant was the acquisition in Ukraine in 2001 of a total of 12 Kh-55 (ground-launched from trucks) and Kh-55M (air-launched from Iran’s Su-24s) supersonic cruise-missiles (which, with a 1,870 mile-range are optimized for challenging US carrier task forces) and four or six 200kt nuclear warheads for them.”

It is significant that discussion of operational scenarios by the US Armed Forces against the DPRK and Iran have been conducted in a vacuum from the reality of Iranian and North Korean existing nuclear capabilities. Significantly, the US Defense Department is currently working on operational scenarios to strike against Iran under certain conditions, despite the fact that Pres. George W. Bush and Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney are known to personally favor almost any other approach than direct military action against Iran, for fear of alienating the essentially pro-US Iranian public and causing them to rally around the radical clerical leaders in the event of an attack. Nonetheless, it is still essentially forbidden within US defense planning circles to acknowledge an extant Iranian and DPRK nuclear weapons capability, thus rendering US planning questionable.

It seems unlikely, however, that the Iranian Government would wish to initiate any new major escalation in the war against Israel and/or the US while it feels it is making headway through psychological means in keeping a US/Israeli military attack at bay and in suppressing domestic opposition. And part of the Iranian psychological offensives abroad have included the visit by former Pres. Mohamed Khatami to the US and Europe. On September 21, 2006, within a report entitled Iranian Claims of Advanced Combat Aircraft Production Seen as Substantial Exaggeration, it was noted:

The visit during September 2006 by former Iranian Pres. Mohamed Khatami to the United States, and the visit by current Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad to teh United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20, 2006, were both used to good effect by the Iranian Government to sow doubt in the minds of Western political audiences about the need for, or viability of, military options against Iran.

Mahmoud Mohammadi, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Majlis noted on September 17, 2006: “Such visits blockade opponents’ efforts to gain a consensus against Iran, specially within their own societies.” The statement highlighted the clear understanding of the missions of Khatami and Ahmadi-Nejad to the US.

He added, concerning Khatami’s visit to the US: “This visit prevents prevalence of pessimistic views about Iran within the American society, otherwise US hawks would be very happy to make use of a national consensus, specially among US officials and politicians, against Iran.” He said that visits to other countries, specially the US, by Iranian officials and establishing contacts with their scientific, religious and non-governmental organizations and bodies could prevent threats that the White House officials would pose to Iran in future through “poisoning the American public opinion”.

And Seyed Mohamed Khatami’s “diplomatic” offensive continues outside Iran. Khatami accepted an invitation from University of St. Andrews Principal Dr Brian Lang, in Scotland, to give a lecture to an invited audience of 300 at Younger Hall, St Andrews, on October 31, 2006, and to receive an honorary degree from St. Andrews. Part of the package to induce the university to undertake the event was the gift of a substantial library on Islamic matters to the university, apparently along with a cash donation. However, media and community concern over the visit was, as of early October 2006, beginning to build up against the University, and there was some UK Government concern as well over the visit. But the point is that it seems unlikely that Tehran would undertake a major strategic offensive whole Khatami was still abroad.

There seems little doubt that, although steps by the US or the international community to stop the DPRK and Iranian nuclear weapons programs more than a decade ago would have been difficult, the position in 2006 is even more intractable, and could be achieved, essentially, only by the removal of the leaderships of both countries in such a way as to avoid triggering a nuclear weapons exchange. That, then, moves the strategic options over almost solely to a broad psychological strategy campaign of a type not yet envisaged by the US Government against Iran (primarily) and the DPRK, and of a skill-level not evident in the US since the psystrat of the Reagan White House to end-run the Soviet energy-based ABM program and bring about the downfall of the Soviet Government.

It is significant that Dr Assad Homayoun, the leader of Azadegan, Iran’s secular opposition, is based in Washington, DC, and has long advocated a campaign by the US to provide psychological support to the Iranian public to give Iranians the confidence they need to overthrow the clerical Government. However, the Bush Administration — preoccupied with the November 2006 mid-term elections and also with the failure of US officials to properly manage Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi several years before — has not yet reached out to Homayoun, who represents the most significant, prestigious Iranian opposition figure able to rally Iranians at home.