The latest example of brinkmanship by this small, isolated communist state is its purported intention to test fire for the first time its big new rocket -- the multistage Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Western intelligence reports say the rocket is on its launchpad and has been fueled. With a purported range of some 3,700 kilometers, the Taepodong-2 is theoretically capable of hitting western parts of the United States.
The international reaction to the news has been loud, with countries ranging from the United States and Japan, to Australia, issuing stern warnings of the consequences of a launch.
But one country with a stake in the success of the new missile is waiting quietly: Iran.
"The North Korean launch of the Taepodong in fact does have some relationship to Iran, in that we believe the Iranians helped develop the upper stage of the North Korean rocket, or that Iranian technology helped develop it," Craig Covault, senior editor of the authoritative U.S. magazine "Aviation Week and Space Technology," explains. "So there is at the present time a technology tie between North Korea and Iran on that launch vehicle."
The Taepodong-2 thus appears to be a cooperative effort between two countries sharply at odds with the international community over their nuclear programs. North Korea openly boasts it has atomic weapons. Iran is suspected of having that aim, although it denies it.
Extent Of Cooperation
Covault says it is impossible to say accurately the extent of the Iranian-Korean cooperation.
"Just how deep that goes, I'm not sure that anybody really knows that," Covault says. "But there is some commonality, as well as there is with Chinese support to Iran, and to North Korea. So there is some kind of cross-pollination between China, North Korea, and Iran on the technology in that Taepodong missile."
Tehran, Pyongyang, and Beijing have long had links in missile development. An earlier North Korean manifestation of the Taepodong series missile, the No-Dong, is thought to have been developed with Iranian financial assistance and Chinese know-how.
In the murky world of secret technology transfers, North Korean missile technology is thought to have played a key role in the development of Pakistan's long-range Ghauri missile, and China in the development of Pakistan's Shaheen-1 short-range missile.
In turn, Pakistan's Khan Research Laboratories are believed to have been a major source of nuclear-weapons technology for Iran, North Korea, and Libya. The present pro-Western government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says it has stopped this flow.
Russia -- at least in the Soviet past -- also contributed to this covert transfer of knowledge. In fact, military-aviation expert Andrew Brooks, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says all the missiles now in the news trace their heritage to the simple Soviet Scud missile, and therefore even further back, to the German V-2 rocket of 60 years ago:
"All the rockets we are talking about now are variations and developments of that fundamental Scud technology," Brooks says. "Now, in North Korea's case, they are basically 'welding' -- for want of a better phrase -- two, or three or four of these together to get a long-range rocket, that's what we're talking about now."
No Turning Back?
Brooks notes that since reports say the Taepodong-2 has already been loaded with fuel, the launch cannot be long delayed.
"Once you fuel this thing up, you have got to fire it," Brooks says. "[Liquid rocket fuel] doesn't just sit there, you can't [leave it]. In the last few days, I saw reports they were loading up, in which case it is close to firing."
That is, if it is to be launched at all. The north may be dissuaded by the strength of the international outcry, or President Kim Jong-il may feel the drama of recent days has been sufficient to re-focus straying world attention on the stalled six-party talks.
Space experts agree that the North Korean record of launches is hardly enough to produce an effective weapons-delivery system, with only two previous test firings in the last 13 years.
"They haven't fired [a missile] since 1998, which means either they have not got it right or they have seen no need to fire it. But this will not be a credible missile system if you only fire it once in a blue moon -- you can't do that, you have to fire it and test it a lot in order to iron out the problems," Brooks says.
But at least, says Covault, a launch now of the Taepodong-2 would be a step toward creating a reliable system.
Hans Blix (CTK)
SECURITY GUARANTEES On January 26, RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Fatemeh Aman spoke with former UN chief weapons inspector HANS BLIX about the confrontation between Iran and the international community over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Blix urged the United States to participate in direct negotiations with Tehran and to offer Iran security guarantees that are similar to those being discussed with North Korea...(more)
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