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Exclusive: North Korea Steps Up Aid To Iran On Nuclear Program

Western intelligence sources say that this past spring, North Korea passed a highly specialized computer program on to the Ministry of Defense in Tehran that could give Iran crucial know-how for making nuclear weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jung-il (babeltravel)
North Korean leader Kim Jung-il (babeltravel)
Paul-Anton Krüger

North Korea has markedly extended its arms cooperation with Iran since the start of 2011, according to information received by Süddeutsche Zeitung from Western secret service sources.

Pyongyang passed on to the Ministry of Defense in Tehran a highly specialized computer program that simulates neutron flows, say the sources. Such information is vital both for the construction of reactors, as well as the development of nuclear warheads. In addition, North Korean scientists are supposed to have taught their Iranian counterparts how to use the software. This could give Iran crucial know-how for making nuclear weapons.

The program is called MCNPX 2.6.0, which is an abbreviation of Monte Carlo N-Particle Extended, and it was developed by the US atomic weapons laboratory at Los Alamos. It is used by many Western universities and research institutes, mostly for numerous non-military purposes. However it is subject to rigorous export controls since it can also be used to develop atomic weaponry. Just how North Korea acquired the software is unclear.

The deal with Iran may be part of a broader cooperation for which Iran may have shelled out $100 million. Experts unanimously agree that this amount of money would be too high for just the program and training. North Korea has been shifting arms technology for years, mainly missiles, to countries like Iran in return for hard currencies. The CIA believes that North Korea helped Syria build a secret nuclear reactor to produce plutonium that was bombarded by the Israeli air force in 2007.

With the MCNPX 2.6.0 software, scientists can work out self-sustaining chain reactions that are necessary to create nuclear explosions. The simulations would make it possible for Iranian scientists to figure out with a high level of precision if a nuclear bomb would explode, assuming that all the mechanical components were functioning properly. According to Süddeutsche Zeitung"s sources, North Korea also delivered to the Iranians a so-called nuclear data library -- data banks of primary importance to ensure the exactitude of the simulations. Data garnered from North Korea's own experiments is thought to be included in that library.

After research and development phases, North Korea tested nuclear warheads in October 2006 and then again in May 2009. Official documents show that the US also conducted experiments with nuclear material. The data was used for simulations that can further develop an existing arsenal of nuclear weapons and test reliability; the US stopped atomic testing in 1992.

In mid-February 2011, according to the secret service sources, a North Korean delegation went to Iran to teach a group of some 20 people working in the Ministry of Defense how to use the program. This group was linked to several dozen Iranian scientists working on the development of a nuclear warhead. The training is supposed to have taken place over a period of around three months at a secret Revolutionary Guard location.

Cash payments

According to the same sources, three of the North Korean experts who went to Tehran work at the Second Academy of Natural Sciences in Pyongyang, which is involved in the development of missiles and atomic weapons, and is thus under US sanction. Two other scientists were said to hold high positions at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which lies at the heart of North Korea's nuclear program. The delegation is said to have taken part of the Iranian payment back to Pyongyang, in cash. Two of the North Koreans were expected to return to Iran in August, possibly to help Iranian scientists with concrete simulations.

This new information hardens suspicions that Iran is continuing to develop atomic weapons although, according to an internal 2008 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) document, the country already possesses the information required to build a functioning warhead. The IAEA declined to comment on this and referred the Süddeutsche Zeitung to the latest report by its Director General, Yukiya Amano, which came out in May. In the report, Amano listed seven points detailing suspicious activities that could point to a "possible military dimension" to the Iranian nuclear program. At a meeting of the IAEA governing council in June, Amano stated off the record that his agency had indications that the questionable activities had been on-going "until recently."

Both the European and American secret services are operating on the assumption that Iran is not currently running an active program to develop nuclear weapons. Most experts and members of the secret services believe that the Iranians have not yet made a political decision to do so – there are apparently diverging views within the Iranian regime on the subject. At the very least, however, the Iranian government is trying to assemble the various prerequisites so that in case of emergency, it could build nuclear weapons within a short period of time. In the estimate of a majority of Europe‘s secret services, Iran carried on research and development work for nuclear weapons after 2003. In 2007, the US intelligence community issued a much-disputed report to the effect that Iran had ended an active nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Olli Heinonen, a nuclear proliferation expert at Harvard University and former chief inspector with the IAEA, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that if Iran really is working on designs for nuclear weapons then cooperation with North Korea would be useful -- although the North Korean program is plutonium-based while Iran's has up until now apparently been exclusively uranium-based. "Even if they have their own software and parameters, it's always useful to compare notes," says Heinonen. In its universities, Pyongyang has "put a lot of effort into the simulation and calculation of neutron flows in warheads."

Iran and North Korea have cooperated closely on the development and construction of ballistic missiles, says Heinonen. "So it would be logical for them to discuss what you pack into the head of the missile and to work together on that front, too." Even if Iran already has plans for a functioning warhead, or may even have tested components, additional simulations are useful. "They're clearly running an Iranian Manhattan Project," Heinonen added, referring to the US nuclear weapons program during World War II, "and want to improve their know-how."

To produce a warhead, the goal would be "to keep making design improvements so that it's as small and reliable as possible," he explained. From that standpoint, collaboration with North Korea makes "perfect sense."

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