US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just signed a major new nuclear arms control treaty in Prague. The world’s great nuclear powers met this month in Washington and will meet next month at the United Nations (UN) to discuss additional cuts. This is good news for everyone, everywhere. But neither the US-Russia agreement nor the global nuclear arms talks will have much impact on today’s most perilous threat: the nuclear honeymoon between an Iran determined to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity and a North Korea willing to sell Iran much of that capacity for hard currency.

Today, at least 6,000 North Koreans work in Iran and neighbouring areas of West Asia. Many are engaged in construction and the apparel business as low-wage workers. But in Iran and Syria, there are also a growing number of specialist workers. Indeed, when Israel attacked a nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007, it was revealed that North Koreans were involved in developing the site in cooperation with the Syria National Technical Research Center.

Photo: Reuters

Of the many North Koreans living in Iran, most are engaged in activities on behalf of the Korean Workers’ Party. Their mission is to propagandize the party’s ideology in the Islamic Republic. The daily life of these Koreans is constrained within a small community where the party exercises total control over all personal exchanges.

Some of these workers are directed by North Korea’s embassy in Teheran, which is primarily concerned with acting as a party watchdog over fellow citizens stationed in Iran. North Korean diplomatic attaches are required to conduct weekly and monthly self-criticism sessions. Those seen as having failed to follow party dictates in an appropriate way face severe recrimination.

But other North Koreans in Iran do not take their orders from the embassy, and they are of three types. Those from “Office 99" report to the munitions industry department in Pyongyang. Those from “Office 39" report to the finance and accounting department. A final group reports directly to the secretarial office of North Korea’s “Dear Leader", Kim Jong-Il.

In 2002, it was estimated that at least 120 North Korean nationals were working at around 10 locations across Iran that were relevant to missile or nuclear development. While North Koreans who work in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Kuwait are basically cheap labour, the missile and nuclear business conducted by North Koreans in Iran serves as a cash cow, providing Kim Jong-Il’s regime with a pile of hard currency while forging a virtual anti-American alliance. By enhancing nuclear proliferation and the transfer of essential nuclear and related technologies to West Asia’s most radical regime, Kim Jong-Il hopes to shape radical Islamic fundamentalism as a bastion of pro-North Korean feeling.

Until 2009, the department of finance and accounting and the secretarial office in North Korea have been responsible for the export of missiles and missile technologies to Iran through the dummy companies managed by Office 99. These transactions have been conducted under the direct orders of Kim Jong-Il.

This is how it works: The Second Economic Committee, which is under the command of the party’s central leadership, manufactures missiles with the help of North Korea’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences. Companies under the control of Office 99 export the missiles to Iran. The foreign currency earned by the export of missiles and nuclear or other weapons goes either directly into Kim Jong-Il’s pocket, or is used to fund further nuclear development.

Following the nuclear test conducted by North Korea in 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Kim’s regime through Security Council Resolution 1874, which shut down the flow of foreign currency into North Korea. The irony is that the sanctions have made Iran an even more important partner for North Korea than before. So the nuclear relationship has been hardened, not disrupted, by sanctions.

According to high-level internal Workers’ Party documents brought to Japan by North Korean informants, a new front apparatus, the Lyongaksan General Trading Corp., was created in 2010. This organization, it appears, is now intended to play the central role in managing the export of missile and nuclear technologies to Iran.

Of course, this is simply a new wrinkle on an old practice, for North Korea has regularly used dummy companies to export missiles. Names, addresses and phone numbers for such companies are all non-existent, as has been proved by the documents found when the UN confiscated illegally exported weapons under Resolution 1874.

So desperate is North Korea’s financial position that, in December, the ministry of people’s security suspended the domestic use of foreign currency. Violations are punishable by death. Such a harsh measure suggests that even though the sanctions have hardened North Korea’s desire to export nuclear weapons and technology to Iran, the process is becoming more difficult and the regime is losing its key mechanism to earn foreign currency.

Kim Jong-Il will seek to maintain the relationship with Iran no matter what. If this trade is to be halted, China—through whose territory most shipments to and from North Korea pass—will need to play a more responsible role. But, given the scope of the Iranian-North Korean nuclear relationship, Asia’s democracies must start to think seriously about cooperating on regional missile defence in the way that Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has urged Nato and Russia to cooperate. When the stakes are so high, the response must be creative and bold.


Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese minister of defence and national security adviser, is a member of the opposition in Japan’s Diet. Comment at