What lies behind the double standard US president George W. Bush applies to North Korea’s admission of a nuclear program and Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction? Why is Bush saying that North Korea’s violation of international accords – in contrast to those of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – can be settled peacefully and best addressed through diplomatic channels? The reason for this doublespeak, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources reveal, is that Washington suspects that one of the two bombs alleged hidden in Kim Jong Il’s war chest is not North Korean at all, but Iranian.
Some US intelligence officials believe both are.
These pictures are satellite photographs of North Korean Hagap subterranean nuclear facilities in the Myohyang Mts.
According to our sources, the Iranian bomb or bombs were delivered to North Korea in the third week of September under a secret agreement signed in Tehran on July 24 between two of the three branches of the Evil Axis during a visit by Kim-Jung Nan. This high-ranking adviser to the North Korean president oversees his country’s military and nuclear relations, including sales, transfers and exchanges of technology, nuclear substances and missile know-how, with foreign countries.
The two governments agreed that once Iran completed the construction of its first nuclear bomb, it would be transferred to North Korea for its first testing.
(Before visiting the Iranian capital, Kim stopped in Tripoli and Damascus – as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 75, September 6, 2002).
This revelation goes far towards explaining the Bush administration’s policy fluctuations in the run-up to the war on Iraq and sheds new light on the latest twists in Washington’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. What Washington has achieved by the “peaceful means” advocated by Bush is Pyongyang’s consent to go back on its deal with Tehran and refrain from going through with the nuclear test on Iran’s behalf.
Negotiations between Tehran and Pyongyang on the specifics of the deal – means of transfer, terms etc. – began last November, just two months after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and one month after the onset of the Afghanistan War.
Soon after, the US government was partially clued in on the deal from its own intelligence sources, together with input from the Israeli Mossad. But Bush aides advised keeping it dark. First, they wondered about the information’s authenticity when Iran was presumed to be three-four years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. In any case, acting on the information was undesirable since it would have burned highly sensitive US and Israeli intelligence contacts still needed to stay on top of Iran’s nuclear progress. Furthermore, publicity would have jeopardized the US-Russian strategic collaboration in Afghanistan so vital for the success of the US-led drive to capture north Afghanistan and its push on to Kabul. Russian and Uzbek special forces provided the Northern Alliance’s assault on Mazar e-Sharif, Konduz and Hanabad with its armored fist.
As for Iran, just before the Afghan War, Washington and Tehran came to an understanding for Iranian intelligence to support the American drive to capture western Afghanistan, especially the key Shiite stronghold of Herat.
Exposing Iran’s scheme for its first nuclear test in North Korea would have cut short that cooperation and held back the American-led advance in western Afghanistan.
By August 2002, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say the Bush administration had most of the picture of the nuclear test deal, though not what form the test would take – whether a dry run in the laboratory or an actual explosion – a blast under ground or in the atmosphere with North Korean measures to disguise it. The administration also had no clue as to when and how the Iranians planned to ship the nuclear device to North Korea. Once again, American intelligence estimated that, while alarming, the Iranian-North Korean arrangement would not be implemented in the short term. They believed that it would take another year or more for the first Iranian nuke to make its way east,
However, in late September, Washington woke up to the discovery that the Iranian atomic bomb or bombs were already on their way to North Korea.
Iran’s nuclear weapons capability was high on the agenda of the talks Ariel Sharon and Tony Blair held in Moscow this month. Putin appeared discomposed by the intelligence he was offered on the North Korean angle. He declared he had no hand in bringing Iran’s nuclear bomb to its final stages.
In mid-September, the Iranians abruptly dropped their resistance to an American attack on Iraq and jumped aboard the US war effort.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported over the past month, the new US-Iran understanding covered the exchange of intelligence information on Iraq and al-Qaeda, the incursion of a limited Iranian force into Iraq and permission for US bombers to fly over Iran. Tehran would also allow US mobile electronic surveillance equipment to be deployed on its border with Iraq to scan Iraqi military concentrations. According to our military sources, US military planners attach high importance to the positioning of these tracking stations. The latest intelligence data indicates Saddam Hussein is taking advantage of the concentrated military preparations and operations carried out by US and Middle East forces in northern, western and southern Iraq, to begin massing troops in the east.
The Americans were quite taken aback by Tehran being so forthcoming on the US surveillance systems on its frontier with Iraq. After all, the same devices can also track Iran’s western regions where some of its most secret military industrial facilities are located. US intelligence experts now believe that Iran’s nuclear relations with North Korea were at the root at this concession. Some think that the Iranian nuclear bomb was secretly built in those very facilities and that Tehran welcomed an American intelligence-gathering presence in the area only after that bomb was shipped to North Korea and its nuclear cupboard was bare. Then, if word came out of the secret transfer, the Iranians could innocently point to American surveillance as having failed to turn up any sign of illegal nuclear activity.
No Western military or intelligence source admits to knowing by what means the Iranian nuclear device was transferred to North Korea. As to what is in it for Pyongyang, some of those sources believe that the Iranian bomb discovery helped North Korea bring its own nuclear weapons program out into the open.
There are baffling elements in both assertions.
The most likely scenario to explain the North Korean confession, according to one DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence source, is that, realizing the game was up and Washington was onto their nuclear test deal with Iran, Pyongyang decided to match Tehran’s surprising about-face on the Iraq war with a dramatic gesture of its own. Kim Jong-Il would come clean on the arrival of the Iranian bomb, in return for which he trusted to the generosity of United States, South Korea and Japan, for building a modern economy, largely through massive investments.
At al Kufrah, Bomb No. 2? Bomb No. 3?
The same source notes that a second scenario under scrutiny by the intelligence community stems from North Korea’s relationship with Libya and, in particular, Libya’s secret nuclear facilities in the Al Kufrah oasis near the Egyptian border.
On September 6, DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 75 first touched on this connection. Our experts now raise the possibility that North Korean scientists employed at al Kufrah have just managed to complete the construction of a nuclear bomb. Pyongyang may have decided to transfer the device out of the war-bound Middle East to North Korea along the same route – and perhaps by the same vehicle – as Iran’s atomic weapon.
Libya, Egypt, Iraq and several Saudi princes are funding the al Kufrah nuclear program, in which Iraqi nuclear scientists are also taking part. It is not known what the North Koreans are getting out of the deal – their own bomb or a share in a bomb, most probably in return for turning over nuclear or missile technology – or both. This project would benefit Iraq most of all the Arab partners, which means that North Korea, like other governments, may be doing business with both Iran and Iraq.
If this secret transfer was indeed made from al Kufrah, it would, together with the Iranian deal, explain why no one knows exactly how many nuclear bombs North Korea has in its possession or whom they belong to. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to a small number, his spokesman mentioned two.
Intelligence services monitoring these developments agree that during his visit to Pyongyang on October 3, assistant US secretary of state James W. Kelly shocked the North Koreans into their admission of a clandestine nuclear weapons program by confronting Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man, Kang Sok Joo, with a catalogue of the intelligence data American had garnered. However, intelligence officials believe the drama built around the incident was mostly intelligence embroidery to protect America’s undercover sources.
Washington’s puzzling two-week delay in releasing the news appears to have been part of the Bush administration’s frantic efforts to keep any fresh upsets from interfering with the preparations for war against Iraq. The reports attributing North Korea’s nuclear arrival to Pakistani assistance were likewise a red herring to steer attention away from the North Korean-Iranian deal.
Washington held back also to buy time for US strategists and policy-makers to determine how best to handle the dual challenge – not just one confessed nuclear rogue in Pyongyang, but a second stealthier one in Tehran and, for good measure, the two miscreants in league. The Bush administration, facing a full-scale war against Iraq, had to decide whether to take on the two new members of the nuclear club together, or tackle each separately.
Kim Jong Il’s tacit promise to the United States to step aside from the role of surrogate tester of the Iranian device has helped hold off the crisis posed by the presence of an Iranian bomb in North Korea. It entitled North Korea to different treatment from that accorded Iraq, and opened the way for the Bush administration to employ diplomacy to persuade the both Tehran and Pyongyang to divest their arsenals of nuclear weapons.
A very senior diplomatic source estimated to DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Washington faced a much bumpier road to this objective in Tehran than it does in Pyongyang. This also applies to the objective of winning the support of their respective friends and neighbors. China, Japan and South Korea are more openly amenable to lending a hand to the task of getting the Iranian bomb out of North Korea, while American exchanges with Middle East leaders, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are qualified and highly secretive.
The way America goes about its war on Saddam Hussein and its post-war objectives must necessarily be affected by Iran’s ability to build a nuclear device now before the Moscow-assisted Bushehr reactor is finished. The new Iraq is therefore destined to rise in the shadow of a nuclear neighbor to the north, a regional situation that the Bush administration did not bargain for when it began preparing for war on Iraq and redesigning the Middle East.
The apparent zigzags in the Bush administration’s commitment to military action against a recalcitrant Saddam Hussein are the consequence of these momentous developments which have been crowded in and forced a reappraisal.