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Experts: Iran's Attacks on US Assets Could Encourage N. Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and others looks on…
President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and others looks on…

Iran's attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops as Tehran announced it will no longer comply with restrictions on uranium enrichment may encourage North Korea to perfect its nuclear and missile technologies, experts said.

"With Iran also challenging the United States, North Korea may feel that terroristlike activities will be less likely to cause U.S. retaliation because the U.S. will be busy with Iran," said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation research center.

Multiple rockets hit Baghdad's Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy Wednesday. There were no known casualties, and it is unclear whether Iran or its proxies launched them.

The rocket fire came a day after Iran attacked two Iraqi bases used by U.S. forces. Iran launched multiple missiles Tuesday in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani Friday. There are no known American casualties from the attacks.

President Donald Trump authorized killing Soleimani to protect American interests from future Iranian attacks, according to the Pentagon.

Although there were fears that Trump would launch a tit-for-tat retaliation against Iran when he spoke Wednesday morning, he did not announce additional military actions.

"Iran appears to be standing down" he said, pledging to issue new sanctions against Tehran.

'Kim would be emboldened'

Joseph Bosco, an East Asia expert at the Institute for Corea-American Studies (ICAS), said if Tehran kills Americans, and the U.S. does not take action against Iran, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might assume a more aggressive stance against the U.S.

"If the U.S. did not respond, Kim would be emboldened," Bosco said, adding the Iranian attack Tuesday would not have too much impact on the U.S.-North Korean dynamics.

Last week, Kim said North Korea intends to bolster its military forces, take "offensive measures," develop "a new strategic weapon" and "shift to a shocking actual action" without specifying the measures.

Kim's statement came after Pyongyang vowed multiple times last year to take a "new path" if the U.S. does not change its attitude, presumably referring to maintaining sanctions on North Korea.

North Korea conducted 13 missile tests last year in an effort to pressure the U.S. to grant concessions, including sanctions relief. Pyongyang was seeking sanctions relief when Kim met with Trump in Hanoi for a February summit that failed.

In October 2019, the U.S. and North Korea held talks in Stockholm, but the talks collapsed without an agreement. Since then, nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have remained deadlocked.

Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA, said Iran and North Korea are watching each other to see how far they could elevate threats against the U.S.

"They're obviously learning by how the U.S. reacts to one another that it might give the other one some insight on how far they can push the United States up the escalatory ladder," Gause said.

The kinds of threats they raise are different, with Iran using proxies in the region to attack U.S. interests there and North Korea testing missiles on the Korean Peninsula.

Gause said, however, Iran and North Korea have taken similar actions of rescinding commitments made on their weapons program that "will move closer to being viable programs in the future."

After the U.S. killed Soleimani, Iran announced it will no longer adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal limiting it from enriching uranium, a key element for making nuclear weapons. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018.

Signaling intent on ICBM testing

Kim last week announced that North Korea no longer feels obliged to keep its self-imposed moratorium on testing a long-range missile, signaling he could test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

"You have a kind of an equivalence here on both sides with two countries that a couple of weeks ago somewhat had a lid on both of these nuclear programs," Gause said. "Now they've become a much more complicated issue to deal with."

The Iranians have yet to develop their technology to the point where they can complete a nuclear weapon, but Iran had already breached the 2015 nuclear deal by enriching uranium in July.

Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, said if the Iranians restart their nuclear program, it could boost North Korea's ambitions to complete its own nuclear program.

"If they do go that far, it makes it easier for North Korea to claim that [it] should be a nuclear power," Korb said.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said if Iran renews its proliferation efforts, it "will reinforce Kim's new strategic choice."

Bennett, of the Rand Corp., said the opposite could also be true.

"Iran has likely concluded that it can also get away with such defiance and breaking of commitments," he said. "And appears to be using the [U.S.] airstrikes on Soleimani to justify similar defiance."

Iran's announcement that it could begin to enrich uranium also provides an opportunity for North Korea to continue developing its nuclear weapons and missiles with the intent of selling them to Iran, Bennett said.

"The law of supply and demand relates to North Korea's supply of nuclear weapons and Iranian demand for them," he said.

"Iran now gives North Korea a clear market for nuclear weapons. North Korea is having problems with inadequate food and electricity and wants the hard currency Iran can supply. That could well lead to nuclear proliferation from North Korea to Iran, some of which likely was going on before," Bennett said.

Sold weapons to Iran, Syria

North Korea has sold ballistic missiles and chemical weapons to Iran and Syria in the past. A U.S. government estimate in 2017 suggested North Korea may be producing enough nuclear material each year for 12 additional nuclear weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration, said, "Iran would welcome North Korean assistance and North Korea could provide very substantial nuclear weapons help to Iran.

"But there is no evidence as far as I know that North Korea and Iran have cooperated on nuclear weapons," he added.

If Iran decides to push forward with its nuclear weapons program, Bennett said the U.S. would face "a four-front nuclear threat: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran."

"The U.S. must now deal with North Korea and Iran while retaining a nuclear deterrent against both China and Russia" he said. "Iran and North Korea have every reason to coordinate their challenges to complicate and deter U.S. responses."

Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said, "If Iran represents any sort of opportunity for North Korea today, it might involve deepened cooperation with another international pariah facing off against the United States."

On Wednesday, Trump said, "As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon."

Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said, "To go beyond its own national defense and to sell nuclear weapons technology to other states would make [North Korea] a well-justified target of U.S. military action."

This report originated in VOA's Korean Service.