Information Fallout: Tracing Implications that North Korea Tested Nuclear Weapons for Iran

By | March 04, 2012 | 7 Comments

If you are like the editors of this website, you, dear reader, are probably wondering: “Did North Korea really test a nuclear weapon for the Iranians?”

The assertion, as this type tends to be, is delivered at an exquisite moment of ferment: We are at the outset of the first discernable thaw in US-DPRK relations since the NY Philharmonic-to-Pyongyang episode in 2008, and squarely also in the cauldron of a domestic political debate about the Iranian nuclear issue, a debate whose main exponents, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, each delivered extensive related commentary this weekend.

Axis of Evil Redux? | "Jenseits von Gut und Böse" oder Wieder eine "Axis der Böse"? Landkarte fuer Luftangriff an Iran | Image courtesy Die Welt, Berlin

What could make things more interesting than a story tying these things together, hastening the imperative to deal harshly with both Iran and the DPRK, and initiate the now-familiar round of self-flagellation for having been strung along by the false promises of these two militantly veiled counter-hegemons?

A number of blogs (cited below, including Commentary) are already asserting that North Korea performed a nuclear test for the Iranians.  What are their sources?  They rely upon Google translations of this (tellingly short) March 4 article in one of Vienna’s better newspapers. Although their translations are disjointed testimony to the rampancy of monolingualism among would-be “foreign affairs” bloggers, the translations do mention an article in Die Welt am Sonntag. Unfortunately, that Welt article, presumably containing actual facts, may as well be in Persian, because no one bothers to seek it out or provide a link.

Fortunately, the UK’s Daily Telegraph Washington, D.C. correspondent Jon Swaine provides the link to the Welt story (the origin of this meme? not yet!) in his story covering Obama’s speech about Iranian nuclear weapons.  Appended to the Telegraph‘s report — the first apparently legitimized appearance of this notion in the English-language print press– is this little bombshell:

• North Korea may have exploded an Iranian nuclear bomb in 2010 in a secret test, a German defence expert has claimed.

In an article published in the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Hans Ruhle, a former German defence ministry official, cited evidence of two small nuclear tests in April and May 2010, and argued that one of them was for a “foreign entity, in this case Iran”.

The claim contradicts analysis from both Israeli and American intelligence that says Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, and, if true, could shift the balance of power in the Middle East.

But what is the logic upon which this new article is based?  And who is Ruhle?  And what information does he have? (Even in the “information age,” we still need actual information, don’t we?  Someday Google Translate is going to start a [unprintable] war.)

What’s more, Swaine omitted the very umlaut in the German official’s last name: it’s Rühle, not Ruhle.  If the Telegraph got his last name wrong (even if it’s paper policy to stick it to the Germans by omitting their diacritical marks), what’s to say the correspondent didn’t read Rühle’s article wrong?  To put it another way, using some old-school Los Angeles courtroom language: If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit!  If the umlaut’s out, you got to shout!

Back to the analysis.

Hans Rühle places his assertion in the form of a characteristically long German-language editorial in Die Welt am Sonntag, which is the Sunday edition of the Berlin newspaper Die Welt.  

But it isn’t “breaking news.”  You can buy Die Welt am Sonntag (The World on Sunday) on Saturday early afternoon on the Berlin street corner, which is something I do a few times a year, usually when feeling flush with post-Cold War triumphalism on the Kurfürstendamm. And it isn’t “news” or an investigative report; it’s an op-ed.

Dr. Rühle is not a current employee of the Bundeswehr, but is a retired defense analyst who was a relatively high official for the (West) German government in the mid-1980s.  While Rühle presumably has access to German intelligence reports (nothing to sniff at, particularly as regards East Asia), the allegations in his op-ed clearly derive from his reading of an article, specifically this February 3 article from the journal Nature.

Courtesy Nature Magazine

The Nature article, which takes a more hypothetical approach, cites research in progress by Lars-Erik De Geer of the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm. The Nature article bases speculative elements upon De Geer’s 29-page article (doubtless laden with requisite technical data and caveats) which is currently hung up in the publication queue and is slated to arrive with the April/May edition of the thrice-annual journal Science and Global Security.

While Geer has clearly written is going to be one of the most-anticipated publications of an academic article in years, it seems an article that sparks a wave of this magnitude should be available for scrutiny a bit sooner, so I have contacted colleagues at FOI (the abbreviation for the Research Agency) in Stockholm to see about getting an advance copy.

Before getting into the extensive Rühle arguments made in Welt am Sonntaghowever, let’s just pivot and review how this whole process has worked thus far, because it could be instructive to simplify things:

American bloggers, already primed to blast off at the suggestion of a twitch of Iranian atomic activity, cite Google translations of Austrian newspapers which quote sentence fragments from editorials in German newspapers based upon month-old North American science magazine summaries of forthcoming journal articles by well-credentialed Swedish defense experts.

I sincerely hope this is not good enough for Evan Feigenbaum, John Bolton, and anyone else who may be advising Mitt Romney on foreign policy, much less the Obama team, and it really should not be sufficient grounds prompting we in the observation gallery to shout at the top of our lungs that Kim Jong Un and the KPA have gotten fully into bed with the Revolutionary Guard while North Hamgyong province smoulders.

Take the most offensive elements out of the above reductive equation, equation, however, and what you have is a retired German defense specialist who is rather intrigued by the FOI research, and this is something thus worth examining. So rather than just passing this down the chain (playing “telephone,” as it were) perhaps we should see what he has to say.

Hans Rühle, Iran soll Atombombe in Nordkorea getestet haben,” Die Welt am Sonntag, 4 March 2012

<http://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article13901079/Iran-soll-Atombombe-in-Nordkorea-getestet-haben.html>.

translation by Adam Cathcart (some Chinese is interspersed in the original German as a courtesy to Sinophones)

For years the international community has suspected that, alongside the country’s civil nuclear program, Iran has activated a military nuclear program. As the number of signs grew that Iran in fact had such a program, Tehran remained adamant with its statements, namely that the country was simply striving to use nuclear power peacefully.

Seit Jahren verdächtigt [怀疑] die internationale Staatengemeinschaft den Iran, neben seinem zivilen auch ein militärisches Nuklearprogramm zu betreiben [开动]. Zwar mehren sich die Anzeichen für ein solches militärisches Programm, doch Teheran bleibt hartnäckig [顽固wan2gu4] bei seiner Aussage, lediglich die friedliche Nutzung der Kernenergie anzustreben [奋斗].

And always, [we] are given a few Western arms control experts who assure us of this belief.  Against a rich array of indices, the Iranians strive [to appear] not guilty.   After all, when a country has undertaken a nuclear test, its military outlook clearly changes. And definitively, Iran has not undertaken such a test.

Noch immer schenkt auch so mancher westliche Rüstungskontrollexperte diesen Beteuerungen [ 担保dan1bao3] Glauben. Trotz zahlreicher Indizien gelte schließlich auch für den Iran die Unschuldsvermutung. Erst wenn eine Nation einen Nukleartest durchgeführt habe, seien ihre militärischen Absichten [毒计du2ji4] eindeutig [明显的] bewiesen [证明]. Und im Iran habe definitiv noch nie ein Test stattgefunden.

Bericht der renommierten Fachzeitschrift “Nature” [Report of the Renowned Magazine “Nature”]

But what if Iran were prepared to do a nuclear test?  And if it were done not on Iranian territory, but instead without looking back at world opinion, done where nuclear tests always took place, where people stood ready  to export nuclear expertise and technology in exchange for hard currency – in North Korea?

Was aber, wenn der Iran bereits eine Nuklearwaffe getestet hätte? Und dies nicht etwa auf iranischem Territorium, sondern dort, wo ohne Rücksicht auf die Weltmeinung noch immer Nukleartests durchgeführt werden und wo man bislang stets bereit war, nukleare Expertise und Technologie gegen harte Devisen zu exportieren – in Nordkorea?  

This debate was triggered by a report this past month in the renowned magazine “Nature,” put forward via the understanding of the nuclear physicist Lars-Erik de Geer who research radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere for the Swedish Defence Research Agency. De Geer assembled and analyzed data from various CTBTO monitoring stations in South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

Ausgelöst [引起] hat diese Debatte ein Bericht der renommierten Fachzeitschrift „Nature“ im vergangenen Monat. Hierin werden Erkenntnisse des schwedischen Nuklearphysikers Lars-Erik de Geer vorgestellt, der für die Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm Radioisotope in der Atmosphäre erforscht. De Geer hatte Daten ausgewertet, die von verschiedenen Messstationen in Südkorea, Japan und Russland im Auftrag der Organisation des Vertrags über das umfassende Verbot von Nuklearversuchen (CTBTO) gesammelt worden waren.

The organization itself had not undertaken its own similar evaluation. De Geer, however, found that North Korea undertood two secret nuclear weapons tests in 2010. Almost immediately there were rebuttals from other nuclear researchers. The basis of the data of the Swede, however, is seemingly solid, because he can lean against the rich amount of data interpreting Soviet nuclear tests during the Cold War. 

Die Organisation selbst hatte keine eigene Auswertung [评价] unternommen. De Geer zufolge hat Nordkorea im Jahr 2010 wahrscheinlich zwei geheime Nuklearwaffentests durchgeführt. Zwar gab es sofort Widerspruch von anderen Nuklearwissenschaftlern. Die Datenbasis des Schweden ist jedoch ziemlich solide, zumal er auf umfangreiche Erfahrungen aus dem Kalten Krieg bei der Interpretation von Messdaten sowjetischer Nukleartests zurückgreifen kann. 

[UPDATED]

The rest of the above article is briefly analyzed in English, and then read in the original German, on Soundcloud.

In essence, Rühle goes on to briefly summarize the Nature research and emphasize the presence of the isotope Uran, spins into a long peroration of historical precedents for extraterritorial nuclear tests (British nuclear tests in American Nevada, Israeli tests off the South African coast, and Sino-Pakistani cooperation), recounts the Kennedy administration’s desire to bomb Chinese nuclear sites in 1963 (I declassified the target list from the CIA and have a copy if any readers are interested; it is heavily redacted of course), describes with some fervor the Ayatollah’s excitement about reviving the Shah’s nuclear program in the mid-1980s (when Rühle was presumably keeping up with the issue in “real time” in Bonn), and concludes with the speculation that if the Iranian test in North Korea was in fact carried out, the revelation would be a “world-historical event” which would transform completely the international arms-control and geo-political scenes, not to mention the American election.  Indeed.

(Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam!)

– Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Rodong Sinmun, March 4, 2012 | Which brings to mind: Don't we still need to confirm Die Welt's January 2012 assertions of North Korean assistance to the Syrian rocket program? Or is that not the point, not the point at all?

Related Links:

Omri Ceren, “German Paper: North Korea Tested Nuclear Warhead for Iran,” Commentary, 4 March 2012. (The author is a Ph.D. candidate in communications at USC, and a specialist in what he calls the “geopolitical, cultural, and economic dimensions of the global war between the West and political Islam.” His essay on North Korea, condensed via slashes here, outdoes Dan Senor in describing Iran’s “academic apologists/semantic tricks/coordinated campaign to downplay the Iranian threat/hegemonic intentions/talking points/self-styled experts.” Speaking of experts, Ceren cites the blogger “John Galt,” below, as his source.)

“Tyler Durden”, ”North Korea Has Allegedly Tested Nuclear Warheads for Iran,” Zero Hedge, 4 March 2012.  (The author of Zero Hedge is a widely read pseudonym with influence and focus on hedge funds on Wall Street, as explained in New York Magazine.  ”Durden” also cites “John Galt” for the story, but not before writing pre-media-ordained war with Iran and subsequent ”global deflationary collapse.”)

“John Galt”, “North Korea ‘Allegedly’ Tested Nuclear Warhead for Iran,Shenandoah: Terminus of Orbis Terrarium Ut Not Teneo Is, 3 March 2012. (The entry on this conservative blog uses the Google translation to extrapolate forward that Israel will attack Iran in early May. [Description and spellings amended; thanks to John Galt for contacting the editors.)

Jon Swaine, “Obama: I will not hesitate in using force to block Iran’s nuclear threat from Iran,“ Telegraph (UK), 4 March 2012. (Cites the German report as essentially authoritative.)

Tom Z. Collina, “Possible North Korean Nuke Test Shows Power of CTBT Monitoring System,” Arms Control Now: The Blog of the Arms Control Association, 3 February, 2012. (The lone voice in the wilderness: actual analysis of the data provided in Geer’s research, data which ought to be, but is not, at the core of the above claims of recent North Korean-Iranian nuclear collaboration.)

7 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this, and as I happened to read it twice was also highly entertained by the way the slowly calming author re-engineered his writing going through the day, starting at “Is it the makers of Google Translate or the people who use it I’ll punch first”-type fury but then drifting down to “When will these people learn”-type semi-controlled annoyance. Some anthropology with your analysis? Yes please!

  2. Ah, fantastic, Chris. I think you can very much see what I was after. Having calmed down further, I am now prone to punch myself for having pledged to translate the whole Welt piece, it’s a bit of a slog to go along with these beautiful days in Seattle.

  3. It would be nice if I promised to read it when it’s done, presumably. But I can’t. Still, chin up!

  4. In my misspent youth I had a Q clearance for nuclear weapons. If I recall, the seismograph reports on the 2010 North Korean explosions were so weak that low score on the Richter scale strongly supported the conclusion by the intelligence community that these tests failed to achieve nuclear fission. in other words, NK made an underground dirty bomb, but that’s all. I wonder if radiation subsequently “leaked” into the atmosphere, accounting for the Swedish anomalies. Maybe they are both right?

  5. I truly appreciated this piece – and I might perhaps suggest an ‘update’ (sorry about the punctuation, but I’m American and we are hopeless with these things.) I have read through the Nature piece you have referenced. In it the word Iran appears exactly 0 times. So Dr Rühle has published the merest speculation upon De Geer’s speculation that there were two nuclear test conducted in April and May of 2010. And De Geer’s speculation lacks seismic confirmation of any kind. Is it any wonder someone like John Bolton would be swayed by this ‘evidence,’ as it is exactly what he would like to imagine having happened?

  6. Thanks, Denis. Your comment inspired me to dig around a bit about former Ambassador Bolton; he published an Iran-nukes op-ed in the Washington Times this past Feb. 24 and drew some Iran-North Korean implications back on May 25, 2010 (summarized at the very end of this CSIS summary).

  7. This specific post, “Information Fallout: Tracing Implications that North Korea Tested Nuclear Weapons for Iran « SINO-NK” shows that
    u know what you are talking about! I really absolutely am in agreement.
    Thanks a lot ,Anthony

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