Kyodo news — citing the inevitable single “Western diplomatic source” — has an interesting report that Iran has agreed to permantly station four missile (and perhaps nuclear) experts at a facility in North Korea, about 85 kilometers from the Chinese boarder.

The source said the mission is comprised of four experts from Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics and the private sector.

The team will be stationed at a military facility about 85 kilometers from the North Korean border with China, with two of them having already entered North Korea in late October.

The countries signed an agreement in Tehran on Sept. 1, with the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s No. 2 leader Kim Yong Nam, to expand bilateral cooperation in sectors such as science and engineering.

At that time, the countries also exchanged another two-page document that stipulates the permanent stationing of an Iranian mission, the source said.

The team works directly under Ahmad Vahidi, head of the ministry, and is not allowed to have any contact with Iranian diplomats in North Korea, the source said.

The source observed that Iran seeks assistance from North Korea in such fields as airborne separation of a ballistic missile rocket and warhead miniaturization, while North Korea is to be provided with Iran’s expertise in civil engineering.

The US intelligence community is on the record about ties between Iran and North Korea regarding ballistic missiles, ties that are evident in the technical similarities of North Korean and Iranian rockets.

Iran-DPRK MOU

One interesting detail is the claim that the first two Iranian experts arrived in the DPRK in October, following the signing of a September MOU in Tehran.  (The agreement is said to be a separate two-page document signed at the same time as the MOU.) Both KCNA and IRNA reported on the MOU, which IRNA described as “conducting research studies, exchange of university students and researchers, setting up joint laboratories, sabbatical studies, exchange of technological know-how, Information Technology, energy, environment, sustainable development, agriculture and food stuff.”  The two accounts differ, however, with regard to the amount of detail concerning who attended the signing.

Here is IRNA’s description of the ceremony:

The document was signed between Iran’s Science and Higher Education Minister, Kamran Daneshjoo and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun in the presence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam.

And here, sure to raise eyebrows, is KCNA’s description that includes a list of Iranian participants:

Present at the signing-ceremony from the DPRK side were Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, DPRK Ambassador to Iran Jo In Chol and other suite members and from the Iranian side President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fereydoon Abbasi-Dabani, vice-president and concurrently head of Atomic Energy Organization, Ahmad Vahidi, minister of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics, Mehdi Ghazanfari, minister of Industrial, Mining and Trade, Kamran Daneshjoo, minister of Science, Research and Technology, the minister of Agriculture and the governor of the Central Bank and officials concerned.

Emphasis mine, of course.  Perhaps IRNA omitted the observers due to space constraints.  Or, perhaps, the editors decided discretion was called for, with the inclusion of representatives from AEOI and the Ministry of Defense certainly catching my attention.  (KCNA also mentioned the enlarged group that attended the welcome function and a banquet.)

So, the claim about a two page agreement, in addition to the MOU, seems more or less plausible to me. I mean, you don’t need the heads of AEOI and MODAFL for agricultural cooperation.

Where Might They Be?

I tried to puzzle out where the Iranian team might be staying in North Korea, along with a couple of colleagues.  (Absent somebody putting up pictures of “the best Kebab stand in North Hamgyong Country” or something on Pinterest, we’re speculating.)

The easiest place to start is with the reference to 85 kilometers from the Chinese border.  Now, I get frustrated when reporters use a number like 85 — that’s two significant digits!  85?  You mean as opposed to 84 or 86?  It’s better to think about the distance as being 90 or 100 kilometers, keeping in mind that we are dealing with uncertainties in the tens of kilometers.

This would place the Iranians at a site in what Joe Bermudez calls the “strategic rear missile belt” — hence the nice image from his Jane’s piece, Behind the Lines: North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Units.

Bermudez notes that the only training site in the strategic rear missile belt is located with a Nodong launch unit near Sino-ri:

In addition to its use as an operational base for a Nodong battalion, Sino-ri is sometimes described as a training facility. However, this remains to be confirmed. There are undoubtedly other dedicated ballisticmissile training facilities located within the strategic rear belt, although details are lacking.

Sino-ri, located at: 39° 38′ 50″ N,  125° 22′ 03″ E, is a podunk located near Chongju.  The general area fits the description “85 kilometers from the Chinese border” better than any other site in the strategic rear missile belt.  There is a nearby facility (located at 39°37’53.52″N, 125°18’10.19″E) which has some of the hallmarks of a military facility, including anti-aircraft emplacements.

One colleague noted that the Chongju area makes sense for other reasons.   The team is not supposed to have contact with Iranian diplomats (and presumably random foreigners) in Pyongyang.  It is not near Pyongyang, but it is reasonably well connected by highways, offering relatively convenient access to other missile sites including Tongchang-ri and the Chamjin-li Missile Factory, as well as Pyongyang itself if that becomes necessary.  All things considered, the site offers a lot of advantages, although we might only infer the basis on which it was selected.