Claudia Rosett has an important piece in Forbes today about the manner in which pariah states, in part because of international isolation, seek each other out, learn from each others policy “successes”, and are able to minimize the costs of isolation through partnerships of convenience.
The most disturbing contemporary example of this is of course the Iran/North Korea relationship, one that Rosett reminds us began in earnest in the late 1980s when then newly ensconced “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei met the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. It was a meeting which brought to the fore how both the North Korean and Iranian states depend on Anti-Americanism to justify their existences. In the meeting the Supreme is reported to have told the Great that “Anti-Americanism can be the most important factor in our cooperation with the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea…You have proved in Korea that you have the power to confront America.”
Well, the more things change…
Today, it isn’t simply Anti-Americanism that bind these rogue states, it’s their mutual interest in skirting international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Quoting from Rosett:
Underpinning this cozy anti-American axis are decades of weapons development and trade. Iran has the oil money that cash hungry North Korea craves for its weapons programs, and North Korea has the willingness to pioneer ever more dangerous means of threatening America and its allies.
Following unconfirmed press reports of Iranians being present at North Korea’s third nuclear test this February, the news has been full of stories about the North Korea-Iran axis of proliferation. But some particularly horrifying information can be found in a 2011 paper published by the Seoul-based Institute of National Security Strategy, authored by Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist formerly with the U.S. Congressional Research Service. In this paper, Niksch estimated that North Korea’s regime was earning “between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion annually from its multi-faceted collaboration with Iran (including support for the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas).”
Niksch summarized the signs that North Korea quite likely acquired designs for uranium-fueled nuclear warheads from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan’s laboratories, where North Korean experts were believed to have worked for at least four years after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, “including work in developing and producing the uranium nuclear warheads” for Pakistan’s Ghauri missile (which is a copy of North Korea’s Nodong missile). Niksch went on to summarize open source accounts of Iranian nuclear technicians in North Korea, and North Koreans in Iran — including a 2011 report by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun that more than 200 North Korean missile and nuclear technicians were in Iran, working at sites such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility
So, along with a booming business in the nitty-gritty of missile and nuclear proliferation, what might Iran in all its intimacy with North Korea be learning from the Pyongyang policy playbook, to which Khamenei over a span of more than two decades has been devoting praise?
Above all, there is the lesson that in defiance of the U.S. superpower and its allies, North Korea has by now conducted three nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009 and 2013 — and the U.S. has taken no direct military action to stop them, or to definitively preclude yet more. So it is possible to get away with it. There will be sanctions, potentially even to the point of real economic pain. But there are ways to work together with other wayward states to get around such obstacles, and carry on with proliferation.
It’s clear that the Iranian regime is a good study.