North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in a photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

In advance of the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, planned for next month, Vice President Mike Pence said the US will not require a complete list of missile sites from North Korea.

Instead, the US plans to focus first on nuclear policy. But omitting a discussion on missile sites and missile technology has the potential to replicate the difficulties the West had in halting Iran’s missile program. The parallels are important.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has released a report entitled “Undeclared North Korea: The Sino-ri Missile Operating Base and Strategic Force Facilities.” The paper, researched and written by Joseph BermudezVictor Cha and Lisa Collins could throw a spanner into President Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un.

The study reveals details on approximately 20 missile bases in North Korea, including the Sino-ri base. “The Sino-ri missile operating base and the Nodong missiles deployed at this location fit into North Korea’s presumed nuclear military strategy by providing an operational-level nuclear or conventional first-strike capability against targets located both throughout the Korean Peninsula and in most of Japan.”

Sino-ri, according to the authors, “is an operational missile base that houses a regiment-sized unit equipped with Nodong-1 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM).” But the authors believe Sino-ri “does not appear to be the subject of denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea.”

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Nukes vs missiles

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the “Iran deal” similarly involved only nuclear weapons and weapons technology but did not address Iran’s growing long-range ballistic missile force.

At the time, the Obama administration made its priority the nuclear deal and appeared to have accepted Iran’s argument that its missiles were not designed for nuclear weapons, although any ballistic missile could carry a nuclear warhead if the warhead size fits the throw-weight of the missile.

The administration argued that UN Resolution 2231 covered the ballistic missile issue (Resolution 2231 was the UN endorsement of the JCPOA), but the language hardly constrained Iran. “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

Iran was “called upon” not to – it was not forbidden to undertake activity related to ballistic missiles. Resolution 2231 simply put into UN-speak what Iran had already claimed, that its missiles were not designed for nuclear weapons.

However, the Trump administration has a different outlook.

In February 2017, the Trump administration put Treasury Department sanctions on 13 people and 12 companies the administration believed were involved in Iran’s missile programs. These included four companies in China, a Chinese individual and a Turkish firm, as well as six Iranian organizations with connections to Iran’s Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), which is central to Iran’s missile program.

In March 2017, the United States imposed new sanctions on 11 entities and individuals for “transfers of sensitive items to Iran’s ballistic missile program.” Nine of the 11 were Chinese, including Chinese national Ruan Runling. The Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) said: “Ruan is a Chinese proliferation agent and has supplied SEI (Shiraz Electronics Industries) with missile-applicable items and technology, to include US-origin goods.” SEI is owned by Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics and has been under sanctions since 2007.

In August 2018, the Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran that were terminated under the JCPOA. On December 1, 2018 the US special representative for Iran urged the European Union to impose new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile program, calling it a “grave and escalating threat.” The US threat to retaliate against companies that violated US sanctions on Iran has helped to significantly slow down industrial cooperation between European companies and Iran.

And, on January 15 this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Iran’s launch of a space vehicle launch missile (which failed to reach orbit) and argued again that Iran had violated UN Resolution 2231. Iran maintains that it is compliant because under the UN’s language, its missiles “were not designed” as nuclear delivery systems.

Iran approach, North Korea approach

There are similarities and differences between how Iran has been handled, and how North Korean is being managed. UN sanctions on Iran are far more ambiguous but the result is the same. While sanctions may have had some economic impact and some front companies, technology and know-how sources have been shut down, the flow of missile technology, especially from North Korea – and North Korean companies operating in China – appears to have continued more or less unimpeded.

Sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been in place for a long time.

* In March 1992, the US imposed sanctions on North Korea’s Lyongaksan Machineries and Equipment Export Corporation and Changgwang Sinyong Corporation for missile proliferation activities.
* In 1996, there was an attempt to negotiate with North Korea over its missile activities including the export of missiles and missile technology.
* In June 2009, the UN passed Resolution 1874 attempting to ban North Korean missile tests.
* In August 2010, the Treasury Department sanctioned eight North Korean entities for involvement in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
* In March 2016, the UN passed Resolution 2270 which again attempted to stop North Korean missile tests.
* In 2017, the US imposed sanctions on entities and individuals linked to North Korea’s missile programs.

Revelations about missile bases in North Korea, while disheartening, are not surprising, and it is unlikely to have much practical consequence in the upcoming negotiations between President Trump and “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un. The talks are still generally preliminary, and the administration’s first major objective is accountability for nuclear weapons.

But if missiles are taken off the table – as they were in pursuit of the Iran deal – the threat to South Korea and Japan, as well as to the United States, will remain and likely expand. The Iran example should weigh heavily on the American delegation.

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