North Korea’s continued development of its strategic weapons program is a substantial security threat. North Korea may now have as many as eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States, while its growing arsenal of increasingly advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) may be capable of challenging ballistic missile defense systems deployed in South Korea. In addition, the DPRK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials may be enough for as many as 60 weapons. As a result, North Korea poses a major security risk for South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
But the security threats emanating from North Korea are not limited to the DPRK’s ability to directly threaten its neighbors. North Korea’s proliferation of military equipment and technology also presents a challenge, one that has existed for decades. During the Cold War, for example, North Korea developed extensive partnerships with a number of countries in Africa, to which it exported both weapons and expertise, even going so far as to commit its own pilots to fly Egyptian military aircraft during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
North Korea and Iran: Missile Allies?
North Korea’s export of military hardware and technology has included ballistic missiles. To date, one of North Korea’s most significant partners for the export of ballistic missile systems – and perhaps also for cooperation in the development of ballistic missile technology – has been Iran.
The relationship between Iran and North Korea regarding ballistic missiles dates back several decades. For many years, this relationship was largely a transactional one, in which Pyongyang took advantage of Tehran’s need for defense equipment as a means to generate revenue. During its war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran was at a disadvantage as a result of its lack of long-range strike options with which it could retaliate against Iraqi attacks on Iranian cities and oil infrastructure sites. To compensate, Iran turned to imports of ballistic missile systems, which initially came in limited numbers from both Libya and Syria in the form of Soviet Scud-Bs. Tehran quickly realized it needed a much larger missile arsenal, however, and would turn to North Korea as a supplier. North Korea as a result sent between 200 and 300 Soviet-built Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missile systems to Iran. These weapons were renamed by Iran as the Shahab-1 and Shahab-2, respectively.
Longer Range Systems
This transactional-type missile relationship between Iran and North Korea would continue into the latter part of the 1990s, with North Korea continuing to support Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal in the form of both missile maintenance and training. North Korea would also supply Iran with another ballistic missile system in the form of its medium-range Nodong missiles. These would again be renamed by Iran as the Shahab-3, and Iran would test the system in 1998. Further testing of the system would form the basis for Iran’s development of an indigenous variant of the Shabab-3 that it would dub the Ghadr. The Ghadr was first flown in 2004, and there is no available evidence suggesting that there was direct cooperation between Iran and North Korea in its development.
There has been, however, speculation that Iran and North Korea may have cooperated in other areas regarding the development of ballistic missile systems, or at least that the missile relationship between the two has not remained as one-sided or transactional. North Korean successes in the early period of Kim Jong Un’s reign – including both the successful testing of a three-stage rocket and the launching of a satellite into orbit – led some analysts to suggest that Iran and North Korea had for many years been employing a mechanism for the sharing of technical data and expertise and the procurement of specialized parts. Other evidence – such as the appearance during a 2010 military parade of a warhead equipped on a North Korean Nodong missile that bore substantial design similarities to an Iranian triconic warhead for the Shahab-3 – suggests that the missile relationship between the two countries had evolved beyond the one-sided North Korean export of ballistic missiles to Iran.
More recently, a report submitted in February by the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korean activity related to its weapons programs suggested that ballistic missile cooperation between North Korea and Iran had resumed with the transfer of missile parts and components. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department produced a sanctions notice related to Iranian work on a North Korean rocket booster with an 80-ton thrust. The Soviet RD-250 engine, with which North Korea powered its first successful ICBM flight in 2017, produces an 80-ton thrust. If the cooperation between North Korea and Iran has included the RD-250 engine, it could suggest North Korean support for the development of long-range Iranian missiles, possibly even including an ICBM.