North Korea Helped Turn Iran Into a Missile Powerhouse

Iran Missiles
March 4, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: North KoreaIranMissilesMilitaryIsraelMiddle East

North Korea Helped Turn Iran Into a Missile Powerhouse

The military cooperation between North Korea and Iran, detailed in a recent UN Security Council report, highlights a concerning trend in the exchange of long-range missile technologies and weaponry.


Summary - North Korea's Role in Fueling Iran's Missile Ambitions: The military cooperation between North Korea and Iran, detailed in a recent UN Security Council report, highlights a concerning trend in the exchange of long-range missile technologies and weaponry. This partnership, rooted in a mutual opposition to the United States, has strengthened since the 1980s, particularly after North Korea became a significant arms supplier to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. North Korea's contributions have extended beyond sovereign states, supplying rogue proxy groups in the Middle East with weapons and missile technology. The cooperation includes the transfer of North Korean-made projectiles to Iran and its proxies, with evidence of North Korean weapons used in attacks against Israel. Notably, North Korea has supplied Iran with critical missile components, enabling the development of ballistic missiles capable of striking targets far beyond their borders. This alliance not only facilitates the evasion of international sanctions but also poses a significant threat to regional and global security, as it enhances the military capabilities of both nations and their affiliated proxy groups.

Amidst Sanctions, North Korea and Iran Forge Stronger Military Links

Earlier this month, an annual report submitted to the UN Security Council outlined the growing military cooperation between North Korea and Iran in 2023. While the two rogue allies have exchanged weapons and military systems in the past, resumed cooperation on the development of long-range missiles is concerning. According to the report, “This resumed cooperation is said to have included the transfer of critical parts, with the most recent shipment associated with this relationship taking place in 2020.” In 2024, Iran and its region-wide proxy groups are expected to deploy more North Korean-made projectiles. Following Hamas’ horrific October 7 attack against Israel last year, evidence that North Korean-made weapons were used surfaced. Specifically, images of Pyongyang’s F-7 rocket-propelled grenades used against the Israel Defense Forces circulated online, confirmed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.


The history of the North Korean-Iran partnership

Following the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s, the transactional relationship between Tehran and Pyongyang strengthened considerably. Both countries share a mutual disdain for the United States and external forces generally, cementing their strong bond. Since the international community largely sanctions both rogue states, Iran and North Korea turn to each other to evade trade restrictions and maintain strong networks of trade.

North Korea first became a major weapons supplier to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, supplying the regime with Soviet-designed T-54 and T-55 main battle tanks (MBTs), ammunition, and other essential military equipment. Additionally, Pyongyang sent military and technical advisers to Tehran to support the regime’s war effort. The first missiles provided by the hermit kingdom to Iran were also delivered among these transfers. Pyongyang provided Scud-C missiles equipped with a 500-km range to Tehran, followed by the Hwasong-7 medium-range ballistic missile, which Iranian engineers were able to reverse engineer into the Shahab-3 single-stage, liquid-fuel ballistic missile.

North Korea’s military contributions were not just limited to sovereign nations. Following the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Pyongyang began delivering supplies to rogue proxy groups, including non-state actors in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon. As detailed by Brookings, North Korea was able to supply weapons and their components to Hezbollah by smuggling them through Iran and assembling them in Syria before being shipped to their final destination in Lebanon. Other instances of Pyongyang’s outreach to Iran’s proxy groups have been well documented: “In another example from 2015, Houthi militants fired 20 Scud-C missiles into Saudi Arabia that were identical to North Korea’s Hwasong-6 missile. As Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute argues, the Houthis likely captured the Scuds during battle against the Yemeni Armed Forces, which had purchased them from North Korea in 2002.”

How North Korea supports Iran’s ballistic missile programs

Around this time period, the U.S. intelligence community grew concerned that Tehran would become one of the first client states for North Korea’s 1,000 km Nodong missile. Pyongyang carried out its first successful test launch of the Nodong in 1993, a moment witnessed by a twenty-one-member Iranian delegation. To make matters worse, North Korea even increased the weapons’ range at Iran’s urging to 1,300 km, bringing Israel within Tehran’s striking distance if launched from inside the country. Into the late 2000s, Pyongyang’s cooperation with Tehran’s ballistic missile programs was ongoing. According to United Against Nuclear Iran, Tehran and its proxy groups still rely on Pyongyang for components to construct ballistic missiles. In 2014, a U.S. district court even ruled that both North Korea and Iran were liable for damages inflicted by Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Israel since they provided “material support and assistance” to the terror group.

The Tehran-Pyongyang military partnership extends beyond missiles

North Korea’s military contributions to Iran also extend to its naval fleet. Tehran’s Ghair-class submarines are licensed copies of Pyongyang’s Yono-class vessels. The submarines were first purchased by Iran in the 2000s and have remained a mainstay in its navy ever since. These miniature vessels give Tehran the capability to stage anti-access/area denial operations in the region. Notably, if Tehran is ever given the technology to test missiles using its Ghair submarines, the Strait of Hormuz would be severely threatened.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues and Iranian proxies press on with their barrages targeting Western warships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in addition to assets throughout the region, more North-Korean-originated weapons will likely surface.

About the Author: Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin