North Korea’s successful July 4 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) poses a serious and direct challenge to the Trump administration. But Pyongyang’s rapidly advancing military capabilities also present a second indirect challenge: the Kim regime has valuable assets it may sell to rogue states such as Iran, a nation to whom Pyongyang has proliferated missiles and missile technology for nearly three decades. To roll back this threat, Washington must first identify known and potential areas of cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang and bring the relationship into the spotlight.
Kim Jong Un is currently overseeing an acceleration of his country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. In 2017, North Korea fired 17 ballistic missiles, including the July 4 ICBM test, and Pyongyang could conduct another nuclear test — its sixth — at any time. In addition, Washington should be concerned about the potential for the sale or transfer of solid-propellant medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) from North Korea to Iran.
Solid-propellant missiles like the KN-15 are significantly harder for U.S. military forces to detect and defeat because they require much less time to launch than their liquid-propellant counterparts — five minutes versus 30 minutes to 60 minutes. Solid-propellant missiles require less time because the fuel that propels them is stored inside the missile and is more stable, whereas liquid-propellant missiles must be fueled up immediately prior to launch.
In general, missile testing and development is used by rogue states to signal resolve and defiance against foreign adversaries. If successful, launches can bolster deterrence by credibly demonstrating a state’s military aptitudes. But even if a test fails, they offer invaluable data on the mobility, survivability, accuracy, and overall reliability of their missile force. By demonstrating the relative operational readiness of the projectile, North Korea could also be demonstrating to a fellow rogue state — the Islamic Republic of Iran — that it may be available for export. Such a weapon would fill a crucial void in Tehran’s arsenal.
Technically, Iran has its own two-stage solid-fueled MRBM, as evidenced by the Sejjil-2 program (formerly called the Ashura) which was last successfully flight-tested in 2011 but previously had a mixed track record. Fielding a reliable and road-mobile solid-fueled MRBM would allow Tehran to increase the mobility of its missile force while decreasing launch-preparation time. Currently, Iran’s solid-fuel missiles have not expanded beyond several classes of the same short-range ballistic missile, which reportedly performed poorly in a recent strike on Syria.
North Korean and Iranian defense ties are robust and long-standing, rooted in Tehran’s desperate search for international partners during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War. In addition to the Soviet Scuds Iran procured from Libya and Syria, North Korean missiles like the Nodong (renamed the Shahab-3) formed the backbone of Tehran’s early missile arsenal.
According to Congressional Research Service, Iran has “developed a close working relationship with North Korea on many ballistic missile programs.” That relationship was serious enough for the Obama administration to sanction Iran just a day after the nuclear deal entered its implementation phase. In so doing, Treasury cited an Iranian security official who had worked with North Korea, and other Iranian Ministry of Defense affiliates had traveled to Pyongyang for contract negotiations and to work on a missile component.
The two sides could potentially exchange nuclear know-how in addition to ballistic missile expertise. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is growing at an alarming rate. Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 — its fourth and fifth overall — and information from those tests would be attractive to Tehran. Moreover, depending on how far Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program has progressed, Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges — which is permitted under the nuclear deal — could be useful to it as well.
Pyongyang desperately needs hard currency to sustain its elites and strategic programs, and may therefore find a missile deal with Iran increasingly attractive. If such a deal went forward, Pyongyang is likely to seek payment in cash or engage in commodity bartering. One option for Tehran is to pay Pyongyang with some of the $1.7 billion in cash it received on the sidelines of the nuclear deal. Or, Iran could also serve as a safety net should the Chinese leadership support and enforce a potential U.N. ban on oil exports to North Korea. Such a move would not be unprecedented. Even those who doubt the depth of the Tehran-Pyongyang relationship have cited Iran’s provision of discounted petroleum to the hermit kingdom in the 1990s.
The Trump administration should sanction Iranian officials working with North Korea and state that if Iran purchases the KN-15, the ICBM, or other long-range missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads it could jeopardize the nuclear deal. Congress could request information from the administration on the exact scope of the Tehran-Pyongyang relationship, and if their technical exchanges have only been limited to missiles. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, included provisions in the Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act requiring a report on cooperation between North Korea and Iran and a report on whether Iranian airports and seaports are implementing North Korea-related U.N. sanctions. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House and is being considered by the Senate.
Similarly, as Congress looks to increase non-nuclear sanctions against Iran, it must not forget about the North Korean variable in the equation, which has aided and abetted Tehran’s strategic programs for three decades. While North Korea’s ICBM test underscores the diversity of the Kim regime’s arsenal, it also heightens concerns over the Pyongyang-Tehran axis. The Trump administration can begin to offset the threat posed by these two rogue states by dragging their cooperation into the limelight.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as the nonproliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.