Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and US President Barack Obama recently signed a major new nuclear arms control treaty in Prague. Just last week the world’s great nuclear powers met in Washington, and next month they will meet again at the 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, more than 6,000 North Koreans work in Iran and neighboring areas of the Middle East. 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.
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 marching 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 more than 120 North Korean nationals were working at more than 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 labor, 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-US alliance. By enhancing nuclear proliferation and the transfer of essential nuclear and related technologies to the Middle East’s most radical regime, Kim Jong-il hopes to shape radical Islamic fundamentalism as a bastion of pro-North Korean feeling.
Until last year, 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. All such 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.