Earlier this week, the appearance of an Iranian-style nosecone on a North Korean missile raised eyebrows all over the wonk-o-sphere. That the two countries cooperate in missile development is not exactly new news, but the images from Kim Il Sung Square gave eloquent testimony to this relationship.

But just how far does the technical collaboration extend? Is it confined to ballistic missiles, or is there a nuclear angle as well?

As it turns out, Iran and North Korea have signed a series of three-year plans for “cultural and scientific exchange.” KCNA has announced three of these, with the most recent signing taking place this past April in Pyongyang. The contents of the plans have not been publicized.

The two countries also exchange ideas in the sphere of defense. The striking photograph shown above documents an April 18, 2009 meeting at Pyongyang’s Taedonggang Diplomatic Corps Club in honor of Iran’s Army Day. (Yes, those are portraits of President Kim Il Sung and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the respective revolutionary founders, on the wall.) According to IRNA, IRI military attache Ashgar Rezaiepour gave a speech describing the Iranian military’s defense strategy as based on “deterrence, revolutionary spirit, and tireless self-sufficiency,” or words to that effect.* These principles would sound familiar to North Koreans, for whom songun (military-first policy), deterrence, “wholehearted unity,” and juche (autonomy) are national slogans. But for the North Koreans, deterrence is nuclear in character.

(*That’s the best I can do with Google Translate; readers are invited to jump in with improvements.)

All of this comes by way of introducing my new paper, just published by 38 North: North Korea’s Nuclear Exports: On What Terms? One of the possibilities it raises is that North Korea and Iran might conclude a barter arrangement for nuclear materials and technology.

The paper is necessarily speculative, since any such activity would be a secret, and relatively little is known about how North Korea has built its nuclear program or shared it with others. But there’s more published information on the subject than I’d previously realized. I’ve tried to pull it together and make sense of it.

Regardless of the past, present, or future of Iranian-North Korean dealings, one broad conclusion emerges: barters are a very important vector of proliferation. Along with buying, stealing, or independently replicating key technologies and materials, proliferators also trade them back and forth, and have done so more often than is generally understood. This problem ought to rank at least as high as cash sales of nuclear technology among the concerns of policy-makers.

Update. The post has been corrected — see comments.

Late Update. In the interests of perfectionism, I’ve also come up with a pithier translation for “juche.”