All indications are that a joint North Korean-Iranian nuclear bomb test at the North Korean Punggye-Ri Nuclear Bomb Test Site could come at any time.
According to the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, satellite photos from over a month ago suggest that the North Koreans have repaired extensive rain damage at the site and have maintained a high level of readiness.
Earlier this week in response to a new round of UN sanctions, the North Korean government stated, “ We will take physical action in expanding and strengthening our self-defensive military forces, including nuclear deterrents.”
That the North Koreans are now on the verge of conducting a new nuclear bomb test should come as no surprise. Previous nuclear bomb tests in 2006 and in 2009 took place right after ballistic missile launches. Unlike these previous launches, last month’s successful launch of the Unha 3—the most successful North Korean launch to date—validated the maturity of the Pyongyang regime’s ballistic missile technology, with its ability to actually launch a satellite into space and achieve orbit.
The fact that the North Koreans would now conduct a nuclear bomb test right after a successful rocket launch should be expected. However, what should be most disturbing are some of the unique circumstances surrounding this potential test. These factors include:
- Increased Iranian involvement in the North Korean nuclear program.
- The possibility that this test could be uranium based.
- Newly surfaced information that the Iranians may have actually helped the North Koreans carry out a nuclear bomb test in 2010, which was largely unreported in the Western world.
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is now suggesting that as many as 100 Iranian nuclear weapons technicians and scientists are now in North Korea. This comes on the heels of the Iranian assistance with last month’s rocket launch.
On September 1, 2012 in Tehran, North Korea signed an agreement with Iran focused on scientific and technological cooperation. Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reports that after the agreement was signed and beginning in October, Iran has stationed staff in North Korea to strengthen cooperation in missile and nuclear development.
Even though they are some distance apart geographically, they are actually operating under the same roof. During the September visit of the North Korean delegation to Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei announced that both countries must reach goals despite the pressure and sanctions from others. Surprised now that the North Korean regime continues to thumb its nose at UN sanctions?
The next real concern regarding a potential joint North Korean-Iranian nuclear bomb test is that it may be based on uranium. Historically, the North Korean nuclear program has been based on plutonium and it is a widely held view that the North Koreans have developed enough fissile material for at least six plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
Last month, the South Korean Defense Ministry released a white paper indicating that the North Korean nuclear regime’s program to produce highly enriched uranium appears to be gaining momentum. In addition, satellite images have suggested that activities have been detected around uranium enrichment facilities in North Korea.
The third troubling factor surrounding the possible North Korean nuclear test is the increasing belief that the North Koreans actually undertook two additional tests in 2010, which went largely unreported. Here, it is important to understand how nuclear tests from rogue nations are detected.
To begin with, these nuclear bomb tests are almost always carried out underground. Underground nuclear explosions (UNE) generate a huge electromagnetic pulse that travels outward.
Years ago, scientists at Ohio State University discovered new detection methods by using GPS and radio telescopes. This technology, coupled with the traditional analysis of seismic activity signals, has enabled the Western world to accurately detect such UNE.
Last year, nuclear physicists with the Swedish Military Research Agency (FOI) made a very convincing case documenting radio isotopes coming out of a suspected North Korean nuclear site in 2010. Their analysis indicates that small nuclear charges were detonated in April and May of 2010, with the most disturbing fact being that one was based on enriched uranium, just like the Iranian nuclear program.
Japan has announced that it will launch a new spy satellite this Sunday, January 27, which should strengthen its monitoring capabilities should the North Koreans move forward with their likely test and possible future ballistic missile tests.
It is interesting that America’s allies closest to the threat have turned to the right politically. Just this week, Israel reelected Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister, and last month the South Koreans elected conservative Park Geun-Hye as President.
Recently, US foreign policy seems to always downplay the significance of what North Korea does. The North Korean psyche is such that, every time the US downplays the significance of a successful ballistic missile test or nuclear bomb test, the North Koreans feel they have to prove the US wrong.
Amazingly, North Korea spent $1.3 billion—almost 25% of its annual budget—on last month’s Unha-3 rocket launch.
More sanctions and more talk have little effect on the North Korean regime. The more sanctions we employ, the more emboldened they become.
It is time now for America and the free world to get tough. Joint nuclear and ballistic missile technology development efforts between North Korea and Iran pose the greatest national security challenge for the Obama administration’s second term.
Van D. Hipp, Jr. is Chairman of American Defense International, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in government affairs, business development and public relations. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army and currently serves on Board of Directors of the American Conservative Union and The National Capitol Board of The Salvation Army. Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.