North Korea briefly reclaimed the global press' attention again by claiming to have tested a hydrogen bomb. While coverage focused on whether that was an exaggeration, the press missed a much more important question: Was this test only for Kim Jong-Un or was it also for the Iranian regime?
The North Korean and Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs should be seen as a single entity, as should be their shared cyber warfare programs. The advance of one is an advance of the other. Differences in their activity should be seen as a common-sense division of labor. Gordon Chang, a prominent expert on Asian affairs, has written about the likelihood that this is the case.
Last May, an Iranian opposition group that has accurately identified hidden nuclear sites in the past reported that it had specific intelligence about North Korean nuclear and missile experts secretly visiting Iran. Intelligence analyst Ilana Freedman said in January 2014 that her sources said a relocation of major parts of Iran's nuclear program to North Korea began as early as December 2012.
For Iran, it is best to let the North Koreans put the finishing touches on the most provocative nuclear and missile work. Whereas the Iranian regime does suffer from sanctions and must always keep the 2009 Green Revolution in the back of its mind, North Korea thrives off isolation and international provocation.
North Korea has nothing to lose and can only gain by such an arrangement. Kim Jong-Un's regime has already crossed the nuclear pariah threshold, so it might as well let its Iranian allies take the lucrative deal offered by the West. It has been content to spend $1.1-$3.2 billion each year on it. Plus, the deal puts Iran in a more advantageous position and its economic improvements can help it invest more in North Korea's activity.
The good news is that this latest test—North Korea's fourth— does not appear to be more powerful than its last one, indicating no significant advance in technology. RAND Corporation analyst Bruce Bennett says North Korea is still working on the "basics" of a nuclear fission bomb.
It is hard for some to accept that an Islamist theocracy like that in Iran would work with a cultish communist dictatorship like North Korea, but there is nothing in either one's ideology that would prevent such cooperation. In fact, North Korea's success in building a nuclear arsenal actually encourages Iran to see nuclear weapons as a key lesson for the Islamic Revolution.
“The entire world may well consider North Korea a failed state, but from the view point of [Iran], North Korea is a success story and a role model: A state which remains true to its revolutionary beliefs and defies the Global Arrogance,” Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Iranian regime, told the Washington Free Beacon.
Given the spotty record of U.S. intelligence assessments (to say the least), the West must operate under the assumption that there isn't an Iranian WMD problem and a North Korean WMD problem, but an Iranian-North Korean WMD problem.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.