North Korea’s successful launch of a long-range missile has turned a hypothetical into an emerging reality. Recent U.S. intelligence estimates warned of a North Korean missile capable of reaching the shores of Alaska and Hawaii in a few years. Failed missile tests since 1998 had inoculated many observers with the belief that North Korea’s long-range missile development program had more bark than bite. Pyongyang had been reportedly using missile tests as a bargaining chip rather than as part of a concerted effort to attain long-range capability. North Korea’s leap forward in mid-December, however, clearly demonstrates that the nascent Kim Jong-un regime is on a credible path to further improving its long-range missile capabilities.
How did Pyongyang pass the chronically elusive threshold of completing a three-stage rocket test and placing a satellite in orbit?
Cooperation between North Korea and Iran has been a critical — yet under examined — enabler of the recent success. What started as a transactional relationship, where Iran provided much-needed cash to North Korea in return for missile parts and technology, has evolved into an increasingly effective partnership. The time has come to view their previously independent ballistic missile programs as two sides of the same coin.
Client Becomes Partner
Although sporadic cooperation between North Korea and Iran on missile development has been well documented, analysts viewed this interaction largely through the lens of serial commercial transactions. The conventional wisdom was that cash-starved North Korea found a lucrative client in Iran. As a result, analysts tended to view the two pariahs’ long-range missile development programs as largely independent endeavors. However, North Korea’s sudden success on December 12th was not the result of good fortune but rather was the fruition of its increasing institutional cooperation with Iran. In September 2012, North Korea and Iran signed a scientific and technological cooperation agreement. Largely dismissed as a propaganda ploy, it provided an organizational framework to set up joint laboratories and exchange programs for scientific teams, as well as to transfer technology in the fields of information technology, engineering, biotechnology, renewable energy, and the environment. In practice, the projects created a cover for these regimes to weather U.S.-led sanctions related to missile-proliferation activities. The new bilateral agreement thus appears to have formalized a recent mechanism through which both regimes had been regularly procuring specialized components, as well as sharing technical data and expertise. When one side masters or acquires a key missile-related technology, the other now institutionally benefits.