A North Korean in Iran

July 23, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

Mentioned Suspect Entities & Suppliers: 

Author: 

Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson

Publication: 

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Related Country: 

  • North Korea
  • Pakistan

The death from natural causes of an old man in North Korea this month should have been the closing chapter of the tale of Pakistan's nuclear and missile cooperation with the Hermit Kingdom. Instead, it may mark the next episode in the saga of Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Jon Pyong Ho, who was 88, had been a highly decorated general in the Korean People's Army, as well as a senior figure in the Korean Workers' Party, Pyongyang's version of the Communist Party. He had been a crucial figure in transforming North Korea into a nuclear-weapon state and, even more controversially, was his country's interlocutor with Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, the "father" of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. One of the rare pieces of documentary evidence of such collaboration is a letter that Jon wrote to Khan in 1998, thanking the Pakistani scientist for his help and mentioning the payoffs the North Koreans had made to Pakistani generals. "Please give the agreed documents, components etc. to Mr. Yon [the newly appointed liaison with Khan] to be flown back when our plane returns after delivery of missile components," Jon wrote, an apparent reference to North Korea acquiring Pakistani centrifuges.

Although North Korea initially chose the plutonium route to a nuclear bomb, while Pakistan chose enriching uranium, both countries' nuclear programs have a great deal of overlap. Pakistan's Ghauri missiles, the initial launch vehicles for its nuclear weapons, are copies of the North Korean Nodong missile. North Korea's centrifuges at the uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon are copies of the so-called P-2 centrifuge, a design acquired through Khan.

Such was Jon's esteem that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly paid personal condolences at his wake on July 9, the day before the funeral. According to North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the funeral itself was a full-blown official event, organized by a committee of 88 top officials.

The first figure on that list of top officials was Kim Yong Nam. This prominent North Korean official is currently the president of the Supreme People's Assembly and has also served in many other top positions, including as minister of foreign affairs. His name set off alarm bells among North Korea watchers because, in 2002, Kim led a North Korean delegation to Damascus, Syria, where it signed an agreement believed to be related to Syria building a clandestine copy of Pyongyang's plutonium-producing reactor. Five years later, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the facility. Now it appears that Kim may be positioned to play the same role with Iran that Jon once played with Pakistan.

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See full text at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: A North Korean in Iran