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Defence & Aerospace

China concerned about North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs coming to special economic zones


Jang Song-thaek is dragged out of a special military court on Thursday. He was executed soon after.

Jang Song-thaek is dragged out of a special military court on Thursday.
He was executed soon after.

Given recent events in North Korea, China is concerned about the development of Special Economic Zones, and the possibility of their use for Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

In addition to her own nuclear weapons development and assistance to Iran, North Korea is trying to establish new zones to accommodate foreign investors and businesses.

Iran could benefit. The theme seems to be: “Nukes bring us peace, prosperity and happiness. Let’s have a co-prosperity spheres with Iran.”

North Korea’s Special Economic Zones

According to an article at 38 North, an organisation that focuses on North Korea,

In recent weeks North Korea has actively publicised in domestic and foreign news media its determination to pursue an aggressive strategy to develop special enterprise zones (SEZs) throughout the country. This follows and complements the agreement reached between the two Koreas in September to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC)—which was closed unilaterally by the North in April—and to establish new joint management arrangements for that zone designed to ensure its stability in the future and to attract international, not just South Korean, investors.

Both developments have been met with considerable scepticism following erratic North Korean decision-making and the significantly negative impact of the KIC’s closure on South Korean companies as well as on investor risk perceptions of the reliability of investing in North Korea at all. Clearly, whether rebuilding and internationalising the KIC or proceeding with ambitious plans to expand the role of SEZs as an economic development strategy, North Korea faces major uphill challenges in attracting investors and finding a formula for success. To many experts and economists, these challenges seem near insurmountable, given the current state of North Korea’s economy and investment climate. This leads us to ask:  should anyone take this new SEZ development strategy seriously?

The execution of Jang Song-thaek — the uncle of Kim Jong-un, husband of the youngest daughter of Kim Il-sung and now former head of the regency that guided Kim Jong-un when he took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il —  is unlikely to make normal commercial entities more sanguine about North Korea’s political and therefore economic stability. Iran might well be less concerned about that than a normal commercial entity.

An article at the Wall Street Journal suggests that the Jang execution is a distraction.

First, if the North is on the verge of miniaturising nuclear warheads as suspected, this will push the nuclear threat to new levels. Kim Jong Il’s most important legacy is the North’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Whatever else Kim Jong Un may do in the military arena, it will be virtually impossible for him or any other leader to roll back or give up North Korea’s nascent nuclear capabilities.

Kim Jong Un’s commitment to North Korea’s nuclear program is therefore akin to Pyongyang’s version of the Mafia’s blood oath: It is sacred, inviolable and irreversible. This is why the notion of “moderates” and “hardliners” doesn’t make much sense when it comes to negotiating a nuclear deal. No one, not even Kim Jong Un, can turn the clock back on North Korea’s weapons.

Iran’s most important modern legacy is similar to that of North Korea.

Iran is not mentioned in the 38 North article but perhaps should be. Under the December 24th deal made with P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council), international sanctions on Iran may be diminished further and then lifted should Iran reject some of her nuclear ambitions — but not necessarily her continuing development of nuclear warheads and missile systems or, for that matter Uranium enrichment beyond the stated percentages and Plutonium production to the extent that they take place at sites not named in the text of the November 24th deal. No sites outside Iran are mentioned.

Iran’s intended test of a ballistic missile has been deemed by the Obama Administration not to be a “deal breaker.”

The White House says that an Iranian ballistic missile test would not invalidate a recently signed nuclear accord meant to temporarily halt some of Iran’s most controversial nuclear work.

The White House clarified its stance just days before Iran is scheduled to launch another ballistic missile some 75 miles into the atmosphere.

The statement contradicts recent remarks indicating that such a test would in fact violate and nullify the weeks-old agreement, which provides Iran with some $7 billion in relief from economic sanctions in exchange for a partial six-month freeze of its uranium enrichment program.

Iran’s Defense Minister spoke on December 9th about a possibly related matter.

In comments broadcast on state TV, Hossein Dehghan said Iranian missiles can now strike within two metres (approximately 2.9 yards) of their targets, compared to 200 metres (about 219 yards) previously.

“The inaccuracy of (our) ballistic long-range missiles in hitting targets is so minimal that we can pinpoint targets. The accuracy of surface-to-surface missiles is now two meters, while at some stage in the past it was 200 meters. We strive to reach zero inaccuracy,” Dehghan said. The remarks were also posted on his ministry’s website.

Iran frequently announces breakthroughs in military technology that are impossible to independently verify. But the Pentagon released a rare public report last June noting significant advances in Iranian missile technology, acknowledging that the Islamic Republic has improved the accuracy and firing capabilities of its missiles.

Despite the Pentagon’s knowledge no later than last June of Iran’s missile advances, the November 24th P5+1 deal does not mention missile development.

Many of Iran’s missiles use solid fuel, or a combination of both solid and liquid fuel, improving the accuracy of the weapons.

Iran has a variety of missiles, some with a reported range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles), enough to reach much of the Middle East. Military commanders have described them as a strategic asset and a strong deterrent, capable of hitting US bases or Israel in the event of a strike on Iran.

Commanders said Iran’s capability of firing multiple missiles within seconds is another technological achievement by Iran’s military. They say this would create a challenge for the US or Israel to intercept incoming missiles should a war break out.

Iran unveiled several underground missile silos in 2011. Revolutionary Guard commanders say the medium- and long-range missiles stored in them are ready to launch in case of an attack on Iran. Such sites are harder to detect and can arm faster than missiles outdoors.

Perhaps with greatly enhanced accuracy Iran’s currently intended missile launch — doubtless an humanitarian effort to deliver radioactive isotopes to Iranian cancer patients suspended at an altitude of 75 miles — will inadvertently strike and kill fewer of them.

According to an article at Debkafile,

1. The American and European negotiators in Geneva asked to discuss the ranges of Iranian ballistic missiles with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, without citing the types capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Zarif refused to discuss this.

2. The Western delegations persevered, stressing that the US and Europe were concerned over the accelerated co-production by Iran and North Korea of the Shehab-6, which has a range of 3,000-5,000 km, and when operational can reach the East Coast of America and most parts of Europe.

3. The US and European delegates gave the Iranians to understand that they would like to extend the six-month nuclear freeze agreed in Geneva (for which no starting date has yet been set) to the [sic] apply to extra range being added to Iran’s ballistic missiles.

There was no objection, they said, to Iran retaining the Shehab missiles with a range of 1,500-2,000 km, which would be capable of striking Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They were only concerned about extending their range to cover America or Europe.

Debkafile is not my most trusted source for accurate information; neither is it my least trusted.

Iranian military sites such as the one at Parchin are not mentioned in the text of the November 24th deal either.

Parchin Military Complex (35.52°N 51.77°E) is located approximately 20 kilometres southeast of downtown Tehran. The IAEA was given access to Parchin on 1 November 2005, and took environmental samples: inspectors did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited, and the results of the analysis of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material. Parchin is a facility for the testing and manufacturing of conventional explosives; IAEA safeguards inspectors were looking not for evidence of nuclear material, but of the kind of explosives testing consistent with nuclear weapons research and development. In November 2011, the IAEA reported that it had “credible” information that Parchin was used for implosion testing. The IAEA sought additional access to Parchin, which Iran did not grant.

The failure specifically to address Iran’s continuing development of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles causes me to wonder whether the P5+1 negotiators or even President Obama had military uses of Uranium and Plutonium in mind.

In any event, it is far from certain that the deal will ever be fully implemented or even continue for six months when, if ever, it becomes effective. During an interview at the Saban Forum on December 7th, President Obama said

If you ask me what is the likelihood that we’re able to arrive at the end state … I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50-50

On December 13th, the Times of Israel reported that

Iranian negotiators in Vienna called off nuclear talks late Thursday with world powers, citing a need for “consultations” with Tehran.

“The Iranian negotiators interrupted the talks with the P5+1 [Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany] for consultations in Tehran,” the Islamic Republic New Agency (IRNA) reported Friday.

AFP reported Friday that the decision to halt the talks came hours after Washington blacklisted a dozen overseas companies and individuals for evading US sanctions on Iran.

. . . .

The announcement by the Treasury and State departments came as the administration was furiously lobbying lawmakers to refrain from any new package of sanctions on Iran after last month’s agreement. As part of the deal, the US agreed to no new nuclear-related financial penalties against Tehran for six months, and Iran’s foreign minister has warned that any such action could kill the diplomatic effort.

North Korea’s new Special Economic Zones and Iran

It seems likely that Iran could use some of the same resources she has been using for years to develop nuclear weapons to enter into expanded partnerships with North Korea even should the P5+1 deal never be implemented with the elimination of sanctions. However, please assume for the moment that the deal will be a smashing success for Iran and that all international sanctions now imposed on her will be lifted. 

What might Iran then do with her newly found financial strength? She might well use some of it to make life modestly easier for her underclass and to develop improved domestic infrastructure. She could, of course, have done that years ago by abandoning her threats and her work to gain nuclear weapons. Be that as it may, without sanctions she should have ample newly found wealth to participate expansively in one or more of North Korea’s Special Economic Zones — not to develop or manufacture new IPads or Persian rugs, but to benefit from North Korea’s advances in nuclear weapons technology and development. Both rogue nations would likely benefit from such advances.

Both already have.  They have a

technological cooperation agreement which, according to Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has brought the two countries with “common enemies” closer.

They have also been assisting each other for years in nuclear weapon and delivery system development. With the lifting of sanctions, they will be in substantially better positions to do more of the same.

North Korea could certainly use the additional financial resources that Iran would provide just as Iran could use the additional technological help from North Korea. It would be a win-win arrangement for both. As I noted in an article titled China, Iran and North Korea — a radioactive stew, published here on March 13th and at China Daily Mail on March 15, 2013

The main thing that puzzles me is why we continue to focus on Iran’s uranium enrichment. Is Iran (again) playing us for suckers? North Korea is fully capable of enriching uranium for Iran (or for anyone else) and would doubtless be happy to enrich as much as may be desired in exchange for the hard currency freely available to Iran if it were only to cease its own enrichment. North Korea needs the money and is not likely very particular about its sources. Just as our sanctions have not impacted Iran’s enrichment capabilities significantly, neither have they impacted those of North Korea. Perhaps we may awaken before it’s too late and notice Iran playing its Korean hole card in our high-stakes poker game.

The new North Korean Special Economic Zones (SEZs) would be excellent venues for expanded North Korean – Iranian cooperative nuclear research, development and construction. They could provide North Korea welcome funds at greater rates of return than normal commercial entities would be willing to provide — particularly if sanctions are lifted on Iran but to a lesser extent even if they are not. North Korea’s existing nuclear facilities are not now subject to foreign inspection and the new SEZs would not be either. Nor would demands likely be made to permit such inspections, at least unless a missile were launched from, or a nuke detonated at, one or more of them. Most likely, however, launches and detonations would occur at previously used North Korean sites since appropriate facilities are expensive to construct and are readily visible in satellite images.

Conclusions

North Korea and Iran are rogue states intent upon having (to the extent that they do not already) nuclear weapons. They apparently believe that they would then become more important, more feared and hence more “respected” states. That seems important to both.

The P5+1 deal is a puzzle, at least to me, because it seems not to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons programs except as follows in the preamble:

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons

That’s a nice goal, but it does not appear to be what the deal was written to accomplish in reality.

Although it might be a rational deal were it simply intended and designed to prevent Iran from develping nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, that is not what has been claimed is intended. Nor is even that what the deal would do if fully implemented.

If the deal results in the lifting of sanctions on Iran, it will provide Iran ample funds to enhance her nuclear weapons partnership with North Korea to their mutual advantage. The new North Korean Special Economic Zones can provide both of them exceptionally useful venues for cooperation of a covert but lucrative nature.

Source – http://danmillerinpanama.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/north-korean-and-iranian-nuclear-weapons-programs-coming-to-special-economic-zones/

UPDATE December 14th

It now seems likely that China may be concerned about the arrest and execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Jang had been the principal intermediary between Kim Jong-un and China.

North Korea’s execution of leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek is expected to have a significant impact on ties with its biggest ally.

In a stunning downfall, Jang – the country’s unofficial number two and its key figure in ties with China – was executed on Thursday immediately after a special military trial, state news agency KCNA reported.

. . . .

State media showed a stooped and handcuffed Jang being led away from the military trial, flanked by two officers, one of whom had a hand on the back of his neck.

Pyongyang’s statement called him “worse than a dog” and “despicable human scum” who planned a military coup – rhetoric often reserved in state propaganda for South Korean leaders.

Jang let in “undesirable and alien elements” to a department of the party’s crucial Central Committee in a bid to “rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state”.

Two of the crimes that Jang was accused of appear to have been aimed at China. [Emphasis added.]

He was accused of allowing his cronies to sell off the country’s valuable resources, including coal.

Jang also allegedly sold land rights in the Rason special economic zone to China for 50 years in order to repay debts he had owed to mineral brokers who had cheated him.

Jang was the major figure driving the development of the Rason special economic zone. In August, a Jilin-based company called Yatai Group signed a 50-year contract to develop a 500,000 square metre plot there.

Cai Jian, the deputy director of Fudan University’s Centre for Korean Studies, said that by mentioning the two China-related crimes Kim could be venting his frustration over Beijing’s recent condemnation of his nuclear and missile tests.

Another of China’s likely concerns is that the Dear Leader is removing the old guys (Jang was sixty-seven) who had provided at least some stability in favor of his contemporaries.

It is North Korea’s version of a youth revolution, and it’s making a lot of people nervous.

At 30, Kim Jong Un may well be the world’s youngest head of state. His brother, Kim Jong Chul, two years older, is best known as an avid Eric Clapton fan but is also said to keep an eye on the leader’s security. And the youngest of the Swiss-educated siblings, 26-year-old sister Kim Yo Jong, is seen frequently as an aide-de-camp to the leader.

With Thursday’s execution of their uncle, Jang Song Taek, and the purge of his cronies, this impatient new generation of the Kim family dynasty appears to be kicking out the adults. More executions are expected.

The developments also are worrying neighbors, including China, who wonder whether they can trust Kim Jong Un with the country’s nuclear weapons and the flow of trade that keeps North Korea afloat. [Emphasis added.]

“He had to get rid of the grumpy old men,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar based in Seoul. “He couldn’t be a boss with subordinates who are twice his age, who don’t understand him and don’t take him seriously.”

Kim’s tactics in some ways are reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Tse-tung in 1966, in which youthful Red Guards terrorized their teachers and other authority figures.

The 67-year-old Jang was for decades a trusted eminence grise, the interlocutor in an otherwise eccentric family. His wife was the youngest daughter of the current leader’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. She was also the sister of the young leader’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Jang was appointed the de facto regent before Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, a job that included reining in youthful impulses — something the younger Kim clearly resented.

In a 2,700-word screed released Friday, Jang was accused of doing “serious harm to the youth movement in our country, being part of the group of renegades and traitors in the field of youth work bribed by enemies.”

If and to the extent that China’s support for North Korea is diminished, North Korea will be in even greater need of any financial resources that Iran might provide.

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About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.

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