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N. Korea-Iran Ties Seem to Be Growing Stronger

Weapons sales and joint observations of missile test launches have been reported. VIPs visiting Pyongyang celebrate `cooperative relations.'

July 27, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — North Korea and Iran, two fiercely anti-American regimes, appear to be bolstering their military and diplomatic cooperation, including the possible sale of missiles to the Tehran government, intelligence sources said.

An Iranian parliamentary delegation visiting Pyongyang was given a VIP welcome with a reception Monday at the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly to celebrate, as the North Korean news service put it, the "friendly and cooperative relations growing strong in various fields" between the two countries.

Israeli intelligence believes North Korea recently sold 18 intermediate-range missiles to Tehran. Some accounts also place Iranian observers in North Korea when the Pyongyang regime test-fired seven missiles over the Sea of Japan this month.

"The Iranians are looking to North Korea for their new designs," said Uzi Rubin, a former head of the Israeli missile defense program. "Of course, we are worried. Whatever North Korea makes eventually ends up in the Middle East."

Rubin says Iran is particularly interested in North Korea's multistage missile, the Taepodong, because it can be used to launch a satellite. The missile was one of the seven test-fired recently, but it failed after 42 seconds, splashing into the sea not far from the test site.

Another missile that Rubin believes might have been among those tested was an intermediate-range missile based on an old Soviet design for a submarine-launched nuclear missile. These newly manufactured missiles are estimated to have a range of 1,550 miles, which would enable them to reach Israel and much of southern Europe from Iran.

Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said in April that Israel had evidence that the North Koreans had shipped 18 of these missiles -- known alternately as the SS-N-6 or the BM-25 -- to an Iranian missile base at the port city of Bandar Abbas.

"What the Iranians bought was a missile in a box. It is an unproven missile," said Israeli defense analyst Alon Ben-David, who said there was great curiosity about whether the new missile was among those tested.

A Japanese newspaper reported recently that 10 Iranians were invited to North Korea to observe the missile tests. A South Korean military expert, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he heard that Iranians were stationed at two launch sites along North Korea's east coast and on a boat in the Sea of Japan.

Testifying before a Senate committee last week, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill confirmed that Iranians were present for the tests. At a news conference the following day, however, he retracted his remarks, saying he was unsure.

North Korea "has had a great interest in commercializing their missile production," and "one of the customers is Iran," Hill said.

Iranians are believed to have observed a 1998 test flight of the Taepodong, and many South Korean analysts are convinced that their fingerprints eventually will be found on these latest tests.

Kim Tae-woo, a South Korean analyst with the governmental Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said, "There is a high probability of Iranian involvement in these missile tests, but we don't have hard evidence."

There is a natural affinity between North Korea and Iran today, as they are the two remaining members of President Bush's "axis of evil," which once included Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Both have strained relations with the rest of the international community -- North Korea over its claim of having nuclear weapons and Iran because of suspicions that it is developing weapons-grade uranium.

"There are strong incentives for cooperation between the two in terms of weapons of mass destruction," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist with Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "They are both insecure countries that don't have a lot of friends and have many enemies. They have a shortage of weapons suppliers so it makes sense for them to share data and set up a division of labor for research and development."

The relationship dates to the 1980s, when North Korea sold missiles and launchers to Tehran for use in the war against Iraq. Later, they cooperated on the joint development of Iran's Shahab missiles. Iranian cargo planes were frequently seen at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport.

On at least one occasion, U.S. intelligence believed that Iran conducted a missile test on North Korea's behalf, taking advantage of its vast expanses of desert.

Iran is thought to be North Korea's best customer since pressure from the Bush administration has forced others -- mostly notably Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Nigeria -- to sever most ties with Pyongyang. Syria also remains a customer. South Korean analysts say that military equipment often is shipped to Iran via Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Military analysts say that North Korean missiles have not been detected in the latest conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas fighting in Lebanon, but that there is evidence that small arms and mobile rocket launchers from North Korea have been used.

The North Koreans have made clear their views on the conflict. In a statement Tuesday carried by the official news agency KCNA, an unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman demanded that the U.S. and Israel "halt their reckless military aggression" in Lebanon.

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