The North Korean regime has most recently made the headlines with its alleged testing of a hydrogen bomb. If the claim is true, then the situation at hand is a true military revolution for this country, considered the black horse of the international system.
What renders this a revolution is the fact that a hydrogen bomb, or more generally, thermo-nuclear weapons, are substantially different from all the basic atomic bombs that Pyongyang has tested before, because they are based on a fusion reaction.
When assessed in terms of their concrete effects, it should be emphasized that they have greater destructive powers, not to mention the huge technological investment they require. The United States, for example, was able to produce its first hydrogen bomb as early as seven years after using its nuclear weapons on Japan.
Moreover, miniaturizing a thermo-nuclear warhead to a size that can be delivered by a ballistic missile is even harder to achieve. That is to say, if the test in question has indeed been successful, we can safely state that Pyongyang has thus achieved the first step of possessing weapons with a top-notch deterrent quality.
Nonetheless, North Korea, which we, from Turkey, perceive to be 'very dangerous but very distant' may actually be much closer than we realize. North Korea has been exporting weapons since the 1980s. Its customers are mostly Middle Eastern and African countries that have never managed to gain the acceptance of the international system.
These countries are subjected to sanctions in regard to their arms procurements. Pyongyang's support for these countries has been taking place on a broad spectrum, ranging from light weapons to ammunition and strategic systems.
As seen in the examples of Iran's medium-range missiles (with a range of 1,000 to 3,500 km) critical to its ballistic missiles program, and Syria's al-Kibar nuclear reactor, hit by Israel in 2007, North Korea's impact in the segment of strategic weapons systems is profound from a military perspective. Moreover, this is a reality taking place just outside the Turkish borders.
- North Korea-Syria military cooperation
The military co-operation between the Ba'ath regime in Syria and North Korea has a decades-long history, and constitutes a major national security threat to Turkey in terms of its strategic consequences. The reason is the fact that at the heart of this cooperation lie ballistic missiles and chemical warheads with ranges of hundreds of kilometers.
Since the Hafez Assad years, the Damascus administration has always been aware of the fact that it could not possibly be on equal footing with either Turkey or Israel through conventional means. For one, it lacked the defense economy and the infrastructure required of it to establish some kind of military parity in the conventional field.
In order to close this gap, Syria continued to fight proxy wars, as in the example of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), while, on the other hand, investing in chemical and biological warfare capabilities -- dubbed in the Middle East 'the poor man's atomic bomb' -- as well as ballistic missiles, by which chemical and biological warheads are delivered to their predetermined targets.
It is known that Syria needs external support for ballistic missiles. Iran's help stands out in terms of the solid-fueled tactical missiles (i.e. the M-600 missile in Syria's inventory is a variant of the Iranian Fateh-110), while Pyongyang is the most important provider when it comes to liquid-fueled short-range ballistic missiles (which are variants of Scuds).
In a number of open-source intelligence analyses, it is stressed that some recent accidents more clearly suggest a military strategic cooperation between Syria and North Korea. One of these accidents took place in 2005, with a Scud-D missile landing near the Turkish border during a test. This North Korean-built missile has a range of about 700 km, and its more advanced flight characteristics set it apart from regular Scud missiles. It is also able to carry mass-destruction warheads.
The last known unsuccessful Scud-D test took place in 2009 under the supervision of North Korean experts. It is estimated that in the inventory of the Ba'ath forces in Syria today, there is a significant number of Scud-D missiles.
Since Syria's chemical disarmament program, unlike the Iraqi example, did nothing to eliminate its ballistic missiles -- which are highly critical instruments of delivery --, this inventory is still under the control of Syrian generals, who have a long rap sheet of war crimes, and politically, that of the Assad regime.
In fact, the harsh stance Ankara has maintained regarding the chemical weapons in Syria since the beginning has once again proved to be well-directed with the unveiling of the massacres perpetrated against civilians following the attempts at chemical disarmament.
Today, senior officials and intelligence agencies of many important NATO-member countries emphasize that the Syrian regime cheated the world with its declarations on its chemical weapons. Let us also keep in mind that the same regime has carried out many ballistic missile attacks on civilian targets in Aleppo.
Therefore, in seeking a solution to the crisis still unfolding in Syria, it is of paramount importance to expand any disarmament regimes, to be implemented from now on, to include the ballistic missiles and to prevent possible attempts at cheating through North Korea. International media have reported that North Korea has supported the Ba'ath regime by dispatching military advisers and even pilots since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
It is claimed that in 2007, a dangerous accident directly involving chemical weapons took place, in which Syrian, North Korean, and even Iranian personnel lost their lives. In this incident, two very dangerous chemical warfare agents that attack the central nervous system -- sarin and VX -- were reportedly tested.
As was recently seen in Idlib, the Ba'ath regime has used sarin derivates on many occasions, in which civilian targets were also hit. However, we need to dwell a bit more on VX, since this chemical warfare agent, when used in large doses, might produce results comparable to a tactical nuclear bomb in terms of its destructive impact.
It is particularly frightening that some of the problems in the chemical disarmament program of Syria, which ended in failure in practice as has been confirmed by many sources, are claimed to stem from the VX gas. Interestingly, the stepbrother of the North Korean leader was assassinated in Malaysia last February, using the same chemical agent.
-North Korea-Iran military cooperation
Despite the claims of nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran, many experts still view these claims as mere speculation in terms of producing tangible results. There are two important reasons for this: at the center of Tehran's nuclear program is enriched uranium, whereas it is plutonium that Pyongyang's nuclear program is built on -- at least initially. It is also known that the two countries use different types of centrifuge.
Nevertheless, there is considerable cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang in their ballistic missile development efforts. According to open-source intelligence data, the cooperation between North Korea and Iran in regard to strategic weapons dates back to 1987, when Tehran bought Scud-B missiles from North Korea.
A number of experts argue that this defense procurement includes more complicated items, adding that North Korea promised to share with Iran the critical missiles technologies that it would develop, in exchange for Iran's financial support for its ballistic missiles program.
As a matter of fact, the Shahab-3 missile, a critical threshold in Iran's transition from short-range ballistic missile systems to medium-range ones in its inventory, is essentially based on the North Korean-made Nodong ballistic missile.
It is also known that Kadir-1, which is a more advanced version of Shahab-3 and has a range of over 1,500 kilometers, was modernized with the help of Pyongyang.
According to some experts, should the military cooperation between North Korea and Iran expand to include miniaturized submarines as much as ballistic missiles, Tehran's deterrence at such critical transit points as the Strait of Hormuz may seriously increase.
-An Asian-Pacific threat in Middle East
In sum, North Korea has been situated 'right next to' the Middle East and Turkey due to its military cooperations. There is a great benefit in scrutinizing particularly its defense relations with Syria and cooperation with Iran regarding strategic weapons systems.
It is highly critical that Washington and Pyongyang have embarked on a trajectory of war and escalation. Although seemingly far from Turkey, many parameters, when viewed from Ankara, show a North Korea with its arms sales to the Middle East stopped as an ideal outcome.
Written by Can Kasapoglu in Paris and translated by Omer Colakoglu
- The writer is a defense analyst at Istanbul-based think-tank, the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM).
*Opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.