North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs cannot be viewed as merely the actions of a single rogue state. Many of its programs have signs of foreign financing, its technology is provided by other nations, and it is part of a network of rogue states that are collectively advancing their nuclear weapons capabilities.
The communist regime in North Korea is working closely with Iran, Syria, and Pakistan on their nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Russia and other nations have provided technology to aid their development of nuclear weapons, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has facilitated and supported the overall programs.
“What China has done is create an unholy proliferation cooperation network,” said Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “The Chinese have helped Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea to different degrees.”
The CCP provides different technologies to each nation to assist in their nuclear weapons programs; and North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran will then share this technology—and add their advancements to it—among themselves.
“The Chinese only need to make discreet material contributions, but all three will eventually benefit from it,” Fisher said.
Former CCP leader Jiang Zemin fostered and, through his political faction, has maintained relations with North Korea. Relations between current Chinese leader Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are relatively tense, and Xi has signaled to the Trump administration he will support harsh sanctions on North Korea.
A leaked State Department cable from Feb. 24, 2010, revealed that in 2005, North Korea shipped 19 ballistic missiles to Iran, which, for the first time, gave Iran the ability to strike capitals in Western Europe.
The Hwasong-10 missile, also known as the BM-25 or Musudan, was first seen in a North Korean military parade in October 2010, and the North Korean regime tested it in June 2016. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the medium-range ballistic missile has an estimated range of over 2,000 miles, and its design was based on the Soviet SS-N-6 submarine-launched missiles.
Fisher noted that when Iran recently tested a ballistic missile, many defense experts believed the launch was of a BM-25, although he noted the available imagery was not strong enough to give definite proof.
After Iran fired the missile, President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on Sept. 23, “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”
Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel.They are also working with North Korea.Not much of an agreement we have!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
According to Fisher, “North Korea and Pakistan are cooperating. North Korea and Iran have been cooperating on missiles. China also remains a principle potential source of such funding.”
“But it is just monumentally bizarre,” he added, “that a country as rock-bottom poor as North Korea has such a sophisticated and broad strategic weapons program.”
Hidden Nuclear Alliance
Rogue states work closely with each other on their programs to build nuclear weapons, and North Korea is merely one of the players in this system, noted Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, at a March 2014 hearing of the Asia Subcommittee of the House foreign affairs committee.
Klingner said analysts have “frequently underestimated North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” believing that the backward nation would be incapable of such developments. He notes, however, that this analysis overlooks North Korea’s shared research programs with other nations.
As an example, he noted North Korea’s “lengthy collaborative nuclear and missile relationship with Pakistan” and that the regime in Islamabad already has nuclear warheads and missiles able to carry them.
Part of North Korea’s deal with Pakistan, Klingner said, is that North Korean scientists have “provided critical assistance to Islamabad’s missile programs,” and in return, Pakistan has provided North Korea with “uranium-based nuclear weapon expertise, technology, and components.”
As an example, he noted an exchange exposed in March 2004 in which “A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, provided a nuclear package deal to Pyongyang including warhead designs, centrifuges, and nuclear fuel.” In exchange for Pakistan’s assistance, North Korea assisted Pakistan by fitting a nuclear warhead onto its Ghauri missile.
Klingner said the warhead design may have been the same one Khan provided to Libya, which was exposed in February 2004, and contained “detailed, step-by-step instructions to produce a Chinese-designed nuclear warhead that would be deliverable by North Korea’s No Dong missile.”
He noted that North Korea has also shown no hesitation in providing Syria with “nuclear and chemical weapon technologies” and has similarly worked with Iran on its nuclear and missile programs—while also assisting Iran in supplying the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah with weapons.
According to William Triplett, a veteran of the Reagan White House and the American intelligence community, it’s important to remember that when North Korea obtains foreign weapons or technology, someone is paying for it and someone is helping with the shipments.
Triplett said that when military equipment is flown between North Korea and Iran, “you cannot fly an airplane from Pyongyang to Tehran without stopping in a military airport in China.”
In the 1970s, he noted, the United States sold a 747-F freight airplane to Iran and sold C-130 planes to Iran and Pakistan. These airplanes have been spotted in North Korean airfields.
He also noted reports from August saying that either Ukraine or Russia had sold rocket engines to North Korea. “Whatever it was, somebody had to pay them for it, and it got from point A to point B,” he said.
Another key issue to keep in mind, Triplett said, is that while the North Korean regime is extremely poor and many of its people are starving, every rocket it launches into the ocean costs around $30 million. “All that stuff is expensive. Somebody is paying for it,” he said, adding that “all roads” have led back to the CCP.
China recently agreed to sanction North Korea, but in the past it has been a key supplier of weapons and technology used by Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
For the CCP, North Korea is a proxy to engage in a pseudo-nuclear Cold War with the United States, according to Fisher, who said the CCP has also been using other rogue states for similar purposes.
“China has turned Pakistan into a nuclear missile state in order to assist its neutralization of India, and China turns Iran into a nuclear missile state to benefit from that instability as well,” he said. “China has managed to become a major arms supplier in the Middle East because other nations want to defend themselves against Iran, which was made powerful by China.”