North Korea and Iran have a decades-long history of close military cooperation, especially in the field of ballistic missile technology. Both being traditionally classed as adversaries with the West, subject to international sanctions and feeling a need to develop military capabilities for use as a deterrent and a means to project power, Pyongyang and Tehran have shared ballistic missile-related technology, equipment and information for many years.
But does the relationship still exist? And in the face of sanctions prohibiting direct military trade between the two countries, in what ways may the pair still be cooperating?
To find out, NK News spoke recently with three experts on defense, security and missile technology, especially concerned with Israel and the rest of the Middle East. These experts explained the takes on the historic and ongoing Iran-DPRK cooperation and the similarities of the threats faced by Israel and South Korea because of this.
– Uzi Rubin: Israeli defense engineer and former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization
– Michael Elleman: Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
– Tal Inbar: head of the Space Research Center – Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies
MISSILE TECH EXCHANGES
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution – which resulted in Iran switching from an ally to an adversary of the United States and other Western countries – Pyongyang and Tehran have cooperated closely in military affairs. In particular, Iran and North Korea have exchanged actual missiles as well as technology and information from missile test results. Iran and North Korea, therefore, maintain very similar arsenals of their more basic missile designs and are able to mutually benefit from one another’s research and advancements, allowing both to countries to progress faster than either could on its own.
Michael Elleman explained how Pyongyang and Tehran have exchanged actual missiles such as the North Korean Nodong, the basis for Iran’s Shahab-3, and then continued to learn from each other’s tests and share information regarding redesigns.
These exchanges included “Iran’s efforts to modify and improve the Nodong missile, known in Iran as the Shahab-3, Elleman told NK News.
“In 2004, Iran overhauled the Shahab-3 to extend its range to roughly 1600km. This effort included lengthening the airframe and propellant tanks to accommodate additional propellant loads, replacing the heavier steel airframe with an aluminum one, incorporating a new nose-cone and other modifications.”
“The appearance of a Nodong, with a warhead/nose cone similar to the Iranian redesign, during a North Korean military parade a few years ago suggests that at least some technical information was exchanged,” said Elleman. “I suspect that the two countries continue to exchange notes, but it seems unlikely that they actively participate in each other’s activities. It is possible, though I have no direct evidence to suggest that North Korea relies on Iran to test its new designs/modifications.”
Tal Inbar agreed that Pyongyang and Tehran shared ballistic missile designs and technology from the early days of their programs. He also explained that North Korea has clearly helped Iran with building infrastructure for missile tests and launches as well.
“You have to remember that basically the North Korean Nodong is Shahab 3, which is the main of Iran’s missile arsenal,” Inbar told NK News. “The interest to me in that is the basic configuration, we do feel that the basic warhead design that we saw in Iran and in Pakistan, Israel also used North Korean missiles. We saw, for example, what we call the tri-conic warhead design in Iran and then several years later, we saw it in North Korea. So it could be that the design was Iranian…it could be the opposite; it could be a joint venture between those two countries.”
“All the infrastructure on the ground that we see in Iran, very large launch pads and all the test stands for rocket engines are made after North Korea design,” said Inbar. “There is no doubt that the design was done either by North Koreans or in collaborations or some operations from the first stage.”
Uzi Rubin shared these views and further explained that the relatively small number of Nodong tests seen in North Korea could be explained by the fact that Pyongyang received information from tests conducted in Iran and Pakistan of essentially the same missile design.
“One of the North Korean missiles, the Nodong on the five-axle launchers, has maybe been tested only once,” said Rubin. “But,” he continued, “the missile is being tested continuously in Iran and Pakistan…it’s basically the same missile. And, Pakistan is testing at least once a year, sometimes twice a year, same design…well, with variation, of course. So, in terms of the cooperation, if they get a hold of the results…then it’s as good as firing their own missiles. Well, not as good, but it adds to the reliability.”
IRAN AHEAD OF NORTH
Despite North Korea providing the Nodong to Iran in the early years and much back-and-forth sharing of technology and knowhow, the experts largely agreed that Tehran has since surpassed Pyongyang with its ballistic missile and space programs. Iran now possesses more advanced long-range ballistic missiles than does North Korea. Furthermore, Iran has been much more successful at using its missiles as launch platforms for putting satellites into orbit. Tehran’s advances, though, could potentially be transferred to North Korea one day in the future, furthering Pyongyang’s own missile program.
“The Iranians are running forward faster than the North Koreans – at least as far as it goes regarding ballistic missile space launches,” said Rubin. “They’ve already orbited three satellites. After one failed attempt, the second one was successful. In comparison, the North Koreans – their program started not that long ago, starting in the ’80s. And the Korean program, it’s a really slow moving program with a lot of failures, and years of hiatus between tests.
“Now, the Iranians are fielding four types of ballistic missiles that you don’t see in North Korea and I’m sure the North Koreans would like to have them.” Rubin said. “Like the two stage Sejil, which is really a quantum leap forward in capability of ballistic missiles…and I didn’t see anything like that in North Korea…well, maybe, the North Koreans are hiding something, but they didn’t show anything like that up to now.”
Inbar agreed that Iran is ahead of North Korea with large, solid-fueled missiles, including the Sejil and the Safir. He also agreed that Tehran has been much more successful than Pyongyang at space launches as well.
“In terms of long-range ballistic missiles using solid propellants, Iran purchased the Sejil, which is large, two-stage, solid-fuel propelled missile and there is no equivalent in North Korea. In this term, Iran is more advanced,” he told NK News. “In terms of seeing a successful launching satellite in space, we saw several accessible Iranian-designed launch vehicles like Safir. But Safir is using the same engine that was taken from the BM25 which is North Korean. So obviously there is cooperation between the two parties. In terms of solid propellant technology, Iran is much ahead.”
In terms of operational success in launching into space, Iran is doing better than North Korea, but you have to remember that the operational satellite launch vehicles of Iran (are) capable of lifting barely 60 kilograms satellite into space. And if you see the North Korean one, first successful satellite was over 100 kilograms and it could be much heavier.”
Elleman, meanwhile, agreed that Iran has a more diverse missile program, but stopped short of saying that Iran is much more advanced than North Korea. Instead, he implied that Pyongyang has chosen to build a more limited missile arsenal than did Tehran.
“It is hard to say that one country is definitively ‘more advanced’ than the other. Overall, Iran has greater long-term potential,” said Elleman. “It appears that Iran has a more sophisticated R&D, engineering and program management capacity, as well as greater access to supporting infrastructure, education, etc. Further, Iran’s pursuit of solid-propellant technologies suggests that it has a greater capacity to diversify. North Korea, on the other hand, seems to limit itself to the technology/hardware it imported from Russian and to a lesser extent, China.”
With the change in relative levels of advancement by the two countries, more sanctions restricting both, and other factors influencing what Pyongyang and Tehran seek to accomplish, the nature of their cooperation has changed somewhat over the years. The experts have varied opinions regarding the current status of collaboration between North Korea and Iran in the area of ballistic missiles.
Elleman explained that Pyongyang and Tehran collaborate less on ballistic missile technology nowadays. He suggests that, since they have come quite far, there is less need to share information and technology as frequently. He also believes sanctions have made it more difficult for the two to continue such exchanges.
“Cooperation on missiles and SLVs appears to be considerably less today than two decades ago,” said Elleman. “I suspect that the two countries have squeezed as much as possible from each other, so there is limited value in continuing significant levels of cooperation today. And given that both countries are heavily sanctioned, and that the UN has Panels of Experts monitoring the imports and exports of each, it has become increasingly difficult, though not impossible, for the two to pursue hardware exchanges.”
Rubin meanwhile believes that the nature of Pyongyang and Tehran’s cooperation has changed as a result of Iran’s progressing ahead of North Korea in the field.
“Obviously, there is a connection,” said Rubin. “However, while that connection was one way, let’s say, in the early ’90s, late ’80s, it’s now probably two-way, some kind of swap, because, now, the Iranians have something to offer of their own.”
Inbar, however, says there is still much advantage and benefit of continued cooperation for both countries.
“Those countries have a lot to gain from each other in terms of not only ballistic missile, not only in launchers, but also in the nuclear domain,” Inbar told NK News. “(North Korea and Iran) are collaborating because first, they have the need, and second, they don’t have any choice of choosing other partners. It’s very clear and understandable why there is such a fruitful cooperation between the two.”
PARALLELS FOR ROK & ISRAEL
Two of the experts, Inbar and Rubin, also discussed the similarities and differences in the ballistic missile and artillery threats faced by South Korea – from the North – and Israel – potentially from Iran and already from groups that receive Iranian support such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Both experts have also suggested that South Korea can learn from Israel and should even adopt some of Israel’s defensive measures.
Inbar said that Israel and South Korea face very similar threats and that Seoul should consider adopting defense systems focused on this threat, such as the Iron Dome system made and used by Israel.
“I think that South Korea is (the) most similar country in the world to Israel in terms of number of rockets and missiles (they potentially face),” said Inbar. “I think that South Korea should have an active defense system against rockets.”
Rubin described the situation in more detail, explaining that it would be very difficult for South Korea to defend itself from the North’s potential artillery and missile attacks. He also suggested that the potential for damage is not only physical and human, but also largely political and economic. A large scale missile and artillery attack on a major city, especially a nation’s capital, can have devastating effects.
“You have to invade North Korea and hold onto its territory to depths of, let’s say, 100 km to stop firing at Seoul, clear it up, to stop any fire at Seoul from short-range rockets, but then the North Koreans have longer range stuff that will come in,” said Rubin. “One of the questions I saw was about those 190 km new guided North Korean rockets. So, I don’t know how exactly they can neutralize it, but, if they have a way, then, maybe, they should tell us how to do it.
“But, we have seen a big city under attack. The consequences are not military. The consequences are political, moral, and economical. In 1991, when Tel Aviv was attacked by the Iraqi missiles and life came to a standstill. I mean a big thriving city, stock exchange and everything coming to a standstill. The economic damage is tremendous. So, it’s not just a military issue.”
As all three experts have explained, there has very clearly been a strong history of cooperation and collaboration between North Korea and Iran regarding ballistic missile technology. They have exchanged actual missiles and technology and shared information such as designs and test results. Working together, both countries have benefited from one another’s experience and knowhow and advanced their ballistic missile programs quicker than either would have alone. This cooperation means that any advancement made in one country – not only in missile technology, but also nuclear and conventional weapons – can easily find its way into the arsenal of the other. The North Korea and Iran are, therefore, potential threats not only in their own regions, but in one another’s as well, since their capabilities are largely shared.
Main photo: Eric Lafforgue
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