On Saturday, North Korea announced it will launch a satellite this month, sometime between December 10th and 22nd. Almost nobody thinks Pyongyang’s technicians have had the time to correct the faults that led to the catastrophic failure of the same rocket this April. Then, the Unha-3 blew up around 90 seconds into the flight.
So why launch now? That’s a mystery, but the one reason that should concern us involves Iran. In short, Tehran needs a launch vehicle for the warhead it has been developing, and the North Koreans need a successful test for their best missile customer.
For more than a decade, Pyongyang and Tehran have run what is essentially a joint missile development program. Iranian observers, for instance, were present in the North for all four of its long-range missile tests, those in 1998, 2006, 2009, and this April. Moreover, American intelligence sources indicate Iran tested a North Korean missile for Pyongyang and the North almost certainly provides missile flight-test data to Iran.
In view of these links, it’s no surprise that Iran’s Shahab-3 is based on a North Korean Nodong missile and more advanced Iranian missiles, the Shahab-5 and Shahab-6, appear to be variants of North Korea’ long-range Taepodong models.
Iran has been financing the North Korean program either by purchasing the North’s missiles or by sharing development costs and receiving missiles in return. Tehran’s support explains how a destitute North Korea has the funds to carry on a sophisticated weapons program. In early September the two countries signed a technical cooperation agreement.
More ominously, Japan’s Kyodo News on Sunday reported that Iran started stationing personnel in North Korea in October at a military facility close to the Chinese border. The Iranians, from the Ministry of Defense and associated firms, are there to develop stronger cooperation on missile and nuclear programs, according to an unnamed Western diplomatic source.
Analysts have puzzled over the timing of Pyongyang’s launch, especially because it comes in close proximity to the December 19th South Korean presidential election. Most observers believe the attempt to orbit a satellite—essentially a ballistic missile test prohibited by two sets of Security Council resolutions—will boost the prospects of the candidate that Pyongyang detests, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party. Park is more skeptical of North Korea than her dovish rival, and a launch would tend to validate her position just before the balloting.
Some Korea watchers speculate that Kim Jong Un wants to mark the first year of his rule with a “celebratory firework.” That is possible too, but, whatever the reason for the launch, the Iranians will get the benefit of the exercise. Yes, the test will take place on Korean soil, but we need to keep thinking about Iran.