While the Trump administration is still touting its supposedly successful summit with North Korea — even claiming that Pyongyang is “no longer a nuclear threat” — senior U.S. intelligence officials worry that a new security challenge is emerging: that the Kim regime could sell advanced, long-range ICBM missile technology to rogue states like Iran.
According to two intelligence officials, speaking to me on background, there is a growing concern that while the immediate threat of armed conflict with North Korea has diminished, Pyongyang could utilize the lull in tensions to its advantage, selling the know-how behind its most advanced weapons systems to Tehran. The officials, unauthorized to speak on the matter, asked for their identities to be protected.
“We know for a fact that North Korea will sell almost any of its military hardware if the price is right — and Iran has paid that price time and time again. In the past, there is ample evidence — even in the public domain — that proves North Korea will sell conventional weapons, all different types of missile technology, and even nuclear tech and expertise if you have the funds to pay for it,” explained a senior U.S. intelligence official.
The official continued:
“What terrifies many of us is that we might not even know that Pyongyang has even sold such technology until it's too late to do anything about it. Think about how much information you can store on just a flash drive today. All it would take is one North Korean agent, selling a 256-gig USB stick to an Iranian operative filled with blueprints, design specs and advanced warhead shielding technology to make a massive difference.
"Just that amount of information on ICBM technology alone would be a game changer for Tehran — and we would not even know about it until the new designs were included in their missile tests.”
History shows the intelligence officials' fears could very well be realized — and soon. North Korea has sold arms to some of the world’s most anti-U.S. regimes and fueled conflicts around the world.
For example, Pyongyang has reportedly helped Syria with its chemical weapons and missile programs. North Korea even started building a nuclear reactor for the Assad regime, only to see it be destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007. There is strong evidence to suggest North Korea is selling conventional arms to the regime now and possibly even fighting alongside Assad’s forces, fueling a civil war that has claimed countless lives to this day.
It gets worse. The Kim family has sold multiple classes of missile platforms to Iran. And, now that the Kim family has missiles that can at least range the U.S. homeland, combined with biting sanctions that are damaging the regime's ability to raise vital revenue, Pyongyang might just be desperate enough to sell its best weaponry, even if it were to damage its budding détente with Washington.
Another senior intelligence official, also speaking on background, had another assessment: “It will be just a matter of time before North Korea sells this stuff (ICBM technology) to Iran. We need to prepare for this as it might even already have happened. I want to stress I have no proof of that, but what would you do if your nation was being hurt by sanctions and you can cause America and its allies some pain?”
There is ample reason to think Iran would indeed love to acquire such technology. If the Iran Nuclear Deal does completely fall apart, or even if Tehran abides by its provisions with willing non-U.S. partners, acquiring such advanced missile technology — which is not prohibited under the terms of the deal — would be a smart strategic move.
Iran would be able to spend the next several years designing, testing and perfecting such missile technology. Knowing that it could take an expensive, long-term effort, Tehran could honor its nuclear agreement with Europe, Russia and China until 2025 — when Iran could legally leave the agreement — and use those years to perfect a working ICBM that it could then use as the delivery system for a nuclear weapon.
Considering even the sheer possibility of such a nightmare scenario, the Trump administration, in whatever deal it is trying to craft with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, should include a provision that Pyongyang would not be able to sell any missile technology, know-how or allow its scientists to work on other nations' missile programs — at a bare minimum. Washington also should demand a full accounting of any missile sales to foreign powers like Iran, so we can gain a better understanding of what other problems Pyongyang might have created.
But such thoughts might be just wishful thinking. Considering that U.S. intelligence officials believe North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons anyway, we might very well face the Kim regime’s most terrifying weapons of war in a future conflict — but they might be fired by someone else.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Kazianis previously served on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign. He has held positions as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, as well as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.