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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
The September 14 drone attack on two major Saudi oil installations, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels claiming responsibility, shook world oil markets and upended the security situation in the Middle East.
President Trump reacted first with a “lock and loaded” tweet, followed by a decision to deploy a small number of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia.
Questions were immediately raised as to the true origin of the drones used in the attack by the Houthi rebels –who have been launching drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia without much success for the past few years.
Fingers immediately pointed to the rebels’ chief sponsor, Iran. But a September 17 article by David Axe in the National Interest expanded the scope of possible sources by pointing out that “The Houthis inherited from the defunct Yemeni military a large number of Soviet-exported Scuds as well as North Korean-made Scuds called “Hwasong-6s.”
So some have pointed past Tehran ultimately to also include Pyongyang, which, according to some reports, has been in an ongoing relationship with Tehran to share unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.
In a July 1, 2014 assessment for 38 North titled “North Korea Drones On” Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. noted that ”North Korea’s UAV force, while relatively unsophisticated at present, has now reached the point where it could present a security challenge for ROK and US forces on the Korean peninsula.
In the future, that threat could grow to include Japan as well as US forces in East Asia if Pyongyang can develop UAVs with greater ranges and payloads, real-time video, electronic countermeasures and stealth capabilities.
How rapidly that threat develops could depend on the North’s ability to acquire new technologies from China, Iran or elsewhere.”
Pusan National University Professor Robert Kelly noted in a September 23 article in the National Interest the mutual interest of Iran and North Korea in developing drone technology: “For smaller powers like North Korea or Iran, drones offer two other benefits.”
“First, because drones are so comparatively inexpensive, they open the possibility of contesting U.S. air dominance. To be sure, such a challenge is still small.”
“But in environments where U.S. air superiority is nearly complete, drones open up new space and possibilities, and this is bound to be attractive.”
The question then arises: will President Trump remain so enamored with his bromance with Kim Jong Un if Kim is caught having helped to undermine another Trump best-buddy, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)?
And is the “axis of evil” of which George W. Bush warned in his 2002 State of the Union address still operable as far as North Korea and Iran are concerned?
Because drones are so comparatively inexpensive, they open the possibility of contesting U.S. air dominance
MBS himself apparently sees the connection between his current drone problem and the Korean peninsula. Korea News Plus reported on September 21 that the Saudi Crown Prince engaged in a 25-minute telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on September 18th.
The two reportedly vowed “to step up their defense cooperation” and “mutual efforts to thwart international terrorism” in the aftermath of the Saudi oil field drone attacks.
The Saudi Crown Prince expressed gratitude for Moon’s support, pledging his country would restore the oil output 100 percent within 10 days, Blue House spokesperson Koh Min-jung said.
In particular, MBS further asked for South Korea’s cooperation on efforts to bolster Saudi’s anti-air defense systems against drone attacks, she added.
Pyongyang has reportedly long been engaged in missile technology and arms sales to the Middle East as a means of generating revenue to provide funding for its own UAV, WMD and nuclear programs.
In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, former Congressional Research Service (CRS) analyst and Senior Associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Larry Niksch pointed to a report he prepared for the U.S. Congress in 2007 titled North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy.
The report at the time drew the close attention of Congress and its staff, of which I was one, but then later, as Niksch noted, faded from view.
Niksch drew the House Committee’s attention, in his 2015 testimony, to a subsequent New York Times article published on November 28, 2010, on missile collaboration.
The report cited “secret American intelligence assessments” that North Korea had supplied Iran with 19 intermediate range missiles in 2006 with a range of up to 2,000 miles. (Niksch added that several experts have expressed doubts about the accuracy of this report and the intelligence assessments cited in the report.)
He also quoted from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking in San Francisco on August 12, 2010, that “North Korea continues to smuggle missiles and weapons to other countries around the world—Burma, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas.”
North Korea has a clear record of being a Middle East bad boy and missile supplier. In December 2009, Thai authorities seized more than 35 tons of arms from a North Korean cargo plane, including rockets and rocket-propelled grenades which were reportedly headed for Hamas and Hezbollah.
In 2014, there were news reports that North Korea was negotiating with Hamas to provide missiles and communications equipment.
And during the Gaza War that took place between Hamas and Israel that year, there were credible reports of North Korean workers who “disguised themselves as domestic workers for Iranian diplomats in Lebanon” assisting Hezbollah with the building of an extensive network of underground tunnels, according to a September 4, 2014 article by Victor Cha and Gabriel Scheinmann in the National Interest.
So was there any Pyongyang-based UAV technology contained in the drones that struck the Saudi oil fields? This could be a topic of discussion for President Trump and Kim Jong Un at a third possible summit.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Digital Globe