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."

Read the original story in German


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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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