Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

Return to Iraq War index page

January 9, 2003

Iraq, Iran, North Korea and WMD: Threat Activated

North Korea in November 2002 stated plainly what it had for years attempted to hide: its nuclear weapons program. The gesture was aimed at dividing US military forces, and causing doubt in the US and Western leaderships in the run-up to a US-led military attack on Iraq. The US is now paying the price for a decade of denial of DPRK, Iranian and Iraqi nuclear weapons.

Analysis. By GIS Staff. State-run radio in the DRPK (North Korea) on November 17, 2002, confirmed that the DPRK Armed Forces had nuclear weapons. Significantly, this confirms consistent intelligence from highly-reliable sources published regularly by the Defense & Foreign Affairs group since 1994. Both the Republic of Korea (ROK: South Korea) Government and the previous US Administration of then-Pres. William Clinton sought to deny the validity of the intelligence because recognition of it would have required a compensatory action on the part of the US and ROK governments.

The timing of the release of the information — and the fact that the Government in Pyongyang knew that it would provoke a major confrontation — could only mean that the DPRK was attempting to (a) take advantage of the fact that the US was preoccupied with Middle Eastern issues and the upcoming war with Iraq; or (b) that it was working in coordination with Iraq and Iran to forcibly divide US strategic attention. All the evidence points to the second option: a coordinated attempt to divide US and Allied military forces and focus. As well, such a move would raise doubt in the mind of some US leaders and US allied leaderships as to whether they could proceed with a war against Iraq while Pyongyang literally challenged the West to nuclear conflict.

Japanese officials, in particular, would be sufficiently concerned to apply pressure on the US to calm the DPRK, knowing that North Korea had already demonstrated the capability to hit Japanese targets with ballistic missiles. Japanese intelligence officials are well aware of the fact that the DPRK has a strong, deployed force of nuclear weapons on its ballistic missiles. The Japanese Government attempted, during the early to mid-1990s, to convince the US Clinton Administration of this fact, providing extensive and cross-confirming defector debriefs on the DPRK nuclear program.

Defense & Foreign Affairs was also in possession of substantial intelligence on DPRK nuclear weapons. This information was deliberately  ignored by the Clinton Administration which knew that, if it acknowledged the reality, it would be forced to deal with it. The situation from that time onward only became more serious, although the US attempted to negotiate with Pyongyang to limit its ability to produce weapons-grade fissile material.

Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs, in his new book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism,1 detailed how, by 1992, Iran — which by that time had illegally acquired three nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union — began the process of developing a strategic rapprochement with Iraq. Iran subsequently negotiated with Kazakhstan to acquire four more 50kt nuclear weapons, which were fitted to DPRK-supplied NoDong-1 ballistic missiles. At the same time, it reached an understanding with the DPRK in 1992 which would effectively coordinate military actions against the US, in effect creating simultaneous nuclear wars in East Asia and the Middle East.

This did not eventuate in 1992 because of internal problems in the DPRK, both with the transition of power from Kim Il-song to Kim Jong-il, and because of opposition within DPRK military circles. But the relationship between Iran, Iraq and the DPRK continued to strengthen, with the DPRK providing substantial quantities of strategic weapons to Iran, Iraq and Libya, in particular. Defense & Foreign Affairs has reported consistently on these developments, including the fact that much of the Iraqi ballistic missile program was being conducted in Libya, using NoDong-1s2.

The Defense & Foreign Affairs reporting, dating back to the early and mid-1990s, gave clear warning that Iraq, Iran and North Korea had discussed the prospect of coordinated actions against the United States as a means of splitting US strategic focus and US forces. There are now strong indications that the announcement by the DPRK Government on November 17, 2002, was intended specifically to aid Iraq and Iran, to divide US strategic capabilities and to raise the specter, for the US and its allies, of a possible nuclear war with North Korea at the same time as a conflict was underway with Iraq, and possibly Iran.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky provided the bulk of the 1990s reports, working with intelligence provided by North Korean defectors and other sensitive and open sources. Several key reports published in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, dating from May 1994, gave a measure of the timeline involved in the reporting on the DPRK nuclear program.

Even by early 1994, it was known that the DPRK had 10 nuclear warheads of 50kt yield deployed on ballistic missiles, plus two additional 50kt devices suitable for vehicle or aircraft delivery. Defense & Foreign Affairs sources believe that the number of warheads available to the DPRK would now be substantially higher, given the fact that it has had an additional eight years to work on the program.

As well, Defense & Foreign Affairs sources believe that it is possible that the “surprise weapon” referred-to by Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein in his message to Arab leaders in 2002 could be a DPRK-supplied nuclear weapon.3

In one of his 1994 reports for Defense & Foreign Affairs, Yossef Bodansky noted: “In 1984, the DPRK began the construction of a major new military nuclear complex in the Yong- byon area built around a new reactor estimated at the 50-200mw range, and dedicated for weapons production. Construction was near completion in 1989 and the reactor was tentatively activated in 1992. The construction of auxiliary installations for this reactor was expected to be completed in 1994, in the aftermath of a crash program begun in 1993. Within two years after its full activation, now expected to take place in 1995 at the latest, this reactor alone will be producing enough plutonium for 10-12 weapons a year.”4

There has been ongoing and overwhelming evidence from a number of quarters to verify DPRK possession of nuclear weapons. As Bodansky noted in the July 1994 report:

“In order to confirm the status of the North Korean military nuclear capabilities, a high level delegation of West European diplomats and experts based in Beijing visited the DPRK in the early winter of 1993. Returning from Pyongyang in mid-December 1993, the delegation reported that the DPRK had ‘several atomic bombs and the vehicles to launch them’. The delegation confirmed much of the data provided by defectors, including that North Korea ‘has built several kilo[ton]-size bombs’. On the basis of the DPRK’s verified plutonium production at Yongbyon alone, the delegation concluded that the DPRK already had ‘at least half a dozen bombs’ to be delivered by a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles.”5

Once again, on November 18, 2002, Associated Press (AP) reports indicated that “South Korean officials expressed doubt about the credibility of the report”. Indeed, it would have been surprising if the ROK officials had not attempted to blunt the impact of the news, given the heightened threat status which DPRK possession of fielded nuclear weapons implied for South Korea.

The timing of the DPRK November 17, 2002, announcement was intended to give validity to Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein’s claim that only Iraq was being singled-out for attack by the US for the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because it was a Muslim state. Such a move was intended to polarize US relations with the entire Muslim world and thereby deny the US and its Coalition partners access to support from Arab-Muslim states.

However, the principal reason for the US reluctance to act against the DPRK and its nuclear weapons has been the fact that Pyongyang has consistently threatened Japan with attack by nuclear weapons — delivered by DPRK NoDong or TaepoDong ballistic missiles — if it allowed the US access to Japanese basing in any attack against the DPRK. Given the lack of sufficient US basing in the Western Pacific, the US has had to take into account Japanese sensibilities and has attempted to find other ways of dealing with the DPRK.

The Pyongyang Government waited before releasing the confirmation of its military nuclear capability until it was clear that the US and other states would no longer supply oil to the DPRK, under the earlier arrangements which had been intended to wean the DPRK off its dependence on nuclear energy.

On November 17, 2002, Pyongyang Radio reported that North Korea “has come to have nuclear and other strong military weapons due to nuclear threats by US imperialists”. Until now, the DPRK had restricted its claims to the fact that it was “entitled to have nuclear weapons and more powerful weapons than that to protect its sovereignty from US threats”.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 18, 2002, expressed serious concern over what it called “contradictory” statements from Pyongyang, noting: “Russia expects the friendly Korean leadership to strictly observe all North Korea’s regulations and obligations on the cornerstone Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is a guarantee not only of global strategic stability but of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.” North Korean officials admitted to visiting US officials in Pyongyang in October 2002 that the DPRK had a covert program to make nuclear weapons with enriched uranium. As a penalty, a US-led international consortium, called the Korean Energy Development Organization, in early November 2002 decided to cut off fuel oil shipments to North Korea beginning in December 2002.

There should have been no surprises on the DPRK nuclear weapons program. As noted in the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook:

“On July 8, 1994, the DPRK announced the death of Pres. Kim Il-song due to a ‘sudden attack of illness’. For Pyongyang, this long-awaited event was the most important milestone in North Korean history since the foundation of the state. It seems that Kim Il-song died as a result of an accident, reportedly in the Integrated Command Post for Nuclear Warfare being completed at Mt. Chidang in Changsan-Dong, Sosong district, Pyongyang. Several officers and officials, including Vice Marshal Chu To-il, then the Commander of the Pyongyang troops, are believed to have been killed or injured in the accident. ...”6

The Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report “ROK Denies Report of DPRK NoDong-1 Deployment”, of October 26, 1999,  noted:

“The Republic of Korea's (ROK)  Defense Ministry denied on October 25, 1999, reports that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea DPRK) had deployed four medium-range missile units which could strikes targets in Japan and the ROK.”

“ROK Defense Ministry spokesman said that he did not believe the report was accurate because of the reported position of the system. One system was reported to have been deployed at Tugol, which is about 60km from the ROK border. The Ministry spokesperson said that it would make little sense to deploy a missile system with a 1,300km range so close to the border with the ROK. Military doctrine is for weapons to be deployed as far from hostile forces as possible, while keeping the weapon within range to strike enemy targets, in order to reduce the chances of the system being destroyed.”

“The ROK Defense Ministry comments were in response to an October 25, 1999,  report in Chosun Ilbo, an ROK newspaper. The report indicated that the DPRK had recently deployed NoDong-1 missiles in two strategic locations in four battalion groups. Quoting an unidentified ROK Government official, the newspaper said the DPRK positioned one battalion at Sinori, north of its capital Pyongyang and three other battalions at Tugol near the western border with the ROK. ‘One battalion was said to have nine launchers for NoDong-1 missiles,’ Chosun Ilbo quoted the official as saying.”

“The strategic, as well as the physical and commercial, linkages between the DPRK, Iraq and Iran — as well as Libya — on nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems has now become clear and of sufficient consistency as to imply a degree of coordinated political activity.” 

Yossef Bodansky in the July 31, 1994, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, noted:

“North Korea and the United States were preparing, in August [1994], to sign a deal which would ‘resolve their differences’ over the DPRK’s military nuclear development. But the deal is merely intended to save face for all concerned. North Korea — the DPRK — already has deployed a substantial number of nuclear weapons and the US is not prepared to confront the matter.”

“... North Korea ... already has close to 10 operational nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles, and two nuclear devices that can be carried by truck or transport aircraft. All the weapons are 50kt nuclear warheads, each weighing around 500kg (1,100lb.). All the DPRK’s ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads. The DPRK already has over 120 NoDong-1s, and a few hundred NK-Scud-Bs and NK-Scud-Cs, in operational service.”

“In late March 1993, the DPRK completed the development of the upgraded NoDong-1 ‘which may be equipped with nuclear warhead’ with a 1,300km range. The DPRK is also accelerating the development of a new SSM, the NoDong-2, estimated to have a range of 1,500-2,000km. The test launching of the first NoDong-2 prototypes is expected in 1994-95 and, barring a major setback, the NoDong-2 will become operational in 1996-97. Therefore, the NoDong-2 can be pressed into operational service under extreme conditions. The DPRK, along with the PRC and Iran, is also developing a new generation of ballistic missiles far  more accurate than the NoDong family and optimized for nuclear warheads. The SSMs, the TaepoDong-1 and the Taepo- Dong-2, will have ranges of 2,000 and 3,500km respectively. A modified Taepo- Dong-2 will be able to reach a range of 9,600km. More advanced nuclear-tipped SSMs, such as the NoDong-X, are also near entry into operational service.”

“The proposed closing down of the DPRK's 5mw reactor will have no impact whatsoever on the DPRK's current and near-term operational nuclear capabilities.”

In the 4-1998 edition of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, Editor Gregory Copley, in an article entitled “The DPRK-Iran Strategic Weapons Linkage: The Timing of the Emperor’s Clothes” noted:

Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, in February 1992, published a four-page article, detailing the status of Iran’s military nuclear capabilities. The article, citing unim- peachable primary sources, noted the acquisition by Iran from the former Soviet Union of three nuclear weapons. With as much detail as possible, but ensuring that sources were protected, this journal and this writer gave a reasoned and balanced report, avoiding any sensationalism. But the US State Department attacked this journal as being the ‘tool’ of a foreign intelligence service. More than one indignant US Congressman, fully cognizant of the importance of the story, demanded [and received] a retraction of the attack by the State Department on Strategic Policy. The original attack made waves in The Washington Post; the retraction was a quiet letter to the Congress, never noted in the open media. And so the matter slept for six years.”

“... What did the West, gain by delaying recognition of the nuclear realities?”

“It could be argued that the NATO and Japan bought time to prepare better strategies for containing Tehran's and Pyongyang's nuclear intentions. Or at least allowed them to drift into an era in which the ‘peace dividend’ self-delusion of the immediate post-Soviet era had diminished. But the truth is that the West gained nothing by its delayed recognition. Iran and North Korea gained the breathing spaces they needed to consolidate their positions and even claim de facto Western acceptance of the status quo.

But even to imply that the West minimized the reports at the time for some coherent strategic reason is o give far to much credence to the vision of those, particularly in the Clinton Administration, responsible. In reality, they were not prepared to face the truth. So rather than face the truth, they attacked the messenger.”

There should be no excuse now for ignoring the Iran-Iraq-DPRK strategic axis.


1. Bodansky, Yossef: The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism. Roseville, California, 2002: Prima Publishing. See also review in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, edition 9-2002.

2. See, for example, En Clair section of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 9-2002: “Iraqi WMD Links to Libya, Uranium”.

3. “A Wide and Complex War”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 10-2002.

4. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, May 1994.

5. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, July 1994.

6. DPRK Section, Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook, 15th Edition. Alexandria, Virginia, 2002: International Strategic Studies Association.