In 2021, I wrote a piece in which I outlined reported arms deals between North Korea and Hamas. These transfers helped Hamas increase its stockpile of rockets and upgrade its technology and other military capabilities. At the time, Hamas was launching thousands of rockets into Israel, but most of these were destroyed by the Iron Dome system, and the Israeli people largely considered themselves safe from attack.
Fast forward to October of 2023 and the threat perception has changed. Hamas’ actions are so horrifying that most Israelis agree the group needs to be completely destroyed. The Oct. 7 terrorist attacks targeting civilian communities in Israel were carried out with an extreme level of brutality. Hamas militants were seen using weaponry from several sources, but shockingly to some, an analysis of weapons seen in footage of the attacks shows several systems with North Korean origins.
North Korea-Gaza Go-Betweens
In 2009, arms shipments consisting largely of rockets and rocket-propelled grenades were interdicted in Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. The Israeli government at the time stated that these shipments were probably bound for Hamas and Hezbollah. The go-between was almost certainly Iran. Since interdicted shipments are often only the smallest portion of what is being sent, the find was quite disturbing.
According to reporting by The Telegraph in July of 2014, North Korea had entered into a deal with Hamas to sell the terrorist organization rockets and communications gear. The deal was reportedly worth several hundred thousand dollars, so it likely involved the sale of thousands of North Korean rockets to Hamas. It was reportedly brokered through a Lebanese front company with ties to Hamas, located in Beirut. In addition, by the time the article was published, a downpayment had already been made, making it likely that rockets and communications gear were shipped in late 2014.
In 2018, Palestinian Fadi al-Batsh, a reported Hamas operative, was assassinated in Malaysia. a country that North Korea used to operate many of its front companies for arms deals. Those deals spanned the globe but focused especially on the Middle East and Africa. According to press reporting, intelligence officials from the West and the Middle East had evidence that al-Batsh was part of negotiations with the North Koreans for arms deals being run out of Malaysia, including for communications components used in rocket guidance systems. According to Egyptian officials, a shipment seized in 2018 contained North Korean communications components used for guided munitions, and it was destined for Gaza.
How North Korea Nurtured Hamas’ Capabilities
What capabilities has North Korea actually contributed to Hamas? According to a source within the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, “some of the multiple rocket launchers found near the Israel border that Hamas militants reportedly used had ‘Bang-122’ written in Korean.” The source elaborated, “Lately, we have repeatedly detected North Korea exporting various weapons to Middle East countries and militant organizations, including the 122-millimeter multiple rocket launchers found along the border near Israel. We believe these weapons were used by Hamas or an organization that supports Hamas.”
The F-7 North Korea-made rocket-propelled grenade was also photographed in possession of the Hamas fighters attacking Israel on Oct. 7. Further, according to the Associated Press and confirmed by numerous photos, “Hamas propaganda videos and photos previously have shown its fighters with North Korea’s Bulsae guided anti-tank missile.” The Bulsae is a laser-guided anti-tank missile that could be effective against Israeli armor as it moves through Gaza.
Finally, The Telegraph reported in 2014 that “Israeli military commanders supervising operations against Gaza believe North Korean experts have given Hamas advice on building the extensive network of tunnels in Gaza that has enabled fighters to move weapons without detection by Israeli drones, which maintain a constant monitoring operation over Gaza.”
These tunnels continue to be a major challenge to the IDF and will complicate a ground campaign in Gaza.
What does all of this mean? First, it means North Korea will sell anything to anybody, including to terrorist groups. Second, it means the governments of Israel and the U.S. must consider North Korea’s military proliferation as an existential national security threat. More proactive means of thwarting it must begin immediately. Third, it means that North Korea’s strong ties to Iran extend to the proxy state and non-state actors Iran supports. Thus, the road to destroying North Korea’s illicit arms networks in the Middle East runs through Iran.
Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is a professor of Political Science at Angelo State University. He is also the president of the International Council on Korean Studies and a fellow at the Institute for Corean American Studies. The author of five books dealing with North Korea, his latest work is entitled North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa.