North Korea’s massive new missile could help Iran threaten Israel

North Korea’s military parade and its arsenal, along with Iran’s progress on missile technology, illustrate how these countries have achieved success in the last decade.

North Korea’s massive military parade showcased an arsenal that should raise eyebrows in the Middle East. It wheeled out its Hwasong-15 ballistic missile and a giant intercontinental ballistic missile that had to be pulled on a transport vehicle with 11 axles. This is a monster and reports call it a “strategic weapon” that appears to threaten the globe.

Years after the Trump administration believed personal diplomacy would make North Korea into a compliant actor, the regime has new weapons. Because Iran is working with North Korea, this could mean Tehran could threaten Israel with similar missiles or shared technology, as it has in the past.

France24 reported that experts said more new weapons were unveiled at this parade than in previous editions. China appeared pleased with President Xi Jinping congratulating Pyongyang on the anniversary.

Many internet sleuths are out there digesting the new photos of the massive missile and the transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) it rode on. Among these are Fabian Hinz and Tal Inbar. The length of these TELs has grown as well, from eight in 2012 to 11 in 2020. Last year it was reported that North Korea was mass-producing ballistic missile transporters and parts for them.

Questions remain about North Korea’s new missile. It is likely the largest road-mobile ICBM in the world and is thought to be liquid-fueled. The consensus is that this missile, if it works, is a threat. The giant TEL is also a threat, apparently, because it shows the capabilities of North Korea in building these transport vehicles. North Korea has been doing a number of tests in recent years. Last August it carried out five tests in several weeks using transporters and shorter range ballistic missiles. Those missiles flew around 400km. In all there were 13 missile tests last year. Harry Kazianis, of The National Interest and an expert on North Korea, noted that the new ICBM that North Korea paraded “seems to be a derivative of what was tested back in late 2017, known as the Hwason-15, is much bigger and clearly more powerful than anything in DPRK’s arsenal.”

This has major ramifications for Israel because reports on September 20 indicated that Iran and North Korea had resumed collaboration. Iran has been increasing its ballistic missile arsenal in recent years, including ranges and precision of the missiles. Iran also has a much better drone, loitering munition, cruise missile and radar units than in the past.

This is what is important to know: Reuters wrote on September 20 that Iran and North Korea had resumed work together on missiles, based on an anonymous US official. The report came out as the US was pushing sanctions and as Washington warned against the expiration of an arms embargo on Iran. Mark Episkopos at The National Interest noted in a September 23 article that Iran has been one of North Korea’s best customers in the past, a client in the 1980s for missile technology that eventually went on to acquire the medium-range Hwason-7 ballistic missile. Iran has used these missiles as a model for its own rapidly expanding missile program. The article noted that the Hwasong-7 was the basis for the Shahab-3 in Iran. Other accounts say the North Korean Nodong-1 missile is a basis for the Shahab-3. Further the National Interest article notes, based on US State and Treasury Department reports, that Iran’s Shahid Movahed Industries has cooperated with North Korea on long range missiles. These could include the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles.

Interest in how Iran and North Korea work together has confounded analysts for several decades. Reports indicate that North Korea helped Pakistan and Iran in the 1990s and early 2000s, including on transport vehicles. Russian diplomats even told the US they were concerned about the Iran-North Korea cooperation on missiles in 2009. At the time US officials and others felt that the missile programs were not well-developed and experts scoffed at the idea that North Korea could successfully sell its larger missiles abroad. However, 2010 reports showed alarm bells were ringing as US intelligence reported that Iran had obtained 19 advanced missiles from North Korea that could hit Moscow and Europe. These were BM-25 (Hwasong-10) missiles and could give Iran “building blocks” for better missiles. Indeed, they did.

John S. Park at The Diplomat has argued that this relationship between Tehran and Pyongyang is symbiotic. They both benefited over the years, and they both built off lessons learned from Russia’s role with Iran in 2005. North Korea and Iran signed a technological agreement in September 2012. This has included work on a three stage rocket to put a satellite in orbit. North Korea found success in that program in a 2012 launch. Part of the rocket was thought to be linked to Iran’s successful Safir rocket. Iran had launched the Omid satellite in 2009. A Safir launch failed last year, in a highly public incident where Trump tweeted a photo of the launch site, but the Qased rocket put the Iranian Nour military satellite into space in April.

Cooperation has grown in different ways. In the 1980s North Korean advisors were in Iran. A report at Atlantic Council notes that the cooperation may include two North Korean companies, Green Pine and Komid. In addition, the US Office of Naval Intelligence has said North Korea modernized aspects of Iran’s navy. DW in Germany also reports that Russia is involved with both countries.

There is much that is not known about the North Korea link to Iran. How does proliferation work, are there advisors in Iran, who is helping who and how, are all key questions. While North Korea once had much of the know-how in missiles, it is clear that Iran’s indigenous program has now made real achievements.

In 2017 Uzi Rubin, Founding Director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, wrote the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies that in 2017, when Iran unveiled the Khorramshar ballistic missile, that it was showcasing how it had built on North Korean expertise. He noted that together the missiles of Iran and North Korea had origins in the Makeyev missile factory in Russia, where the R-27 missile was built. The R-27 was converted to a mobile ground-launched missile, he writes. This became the basis for the Shahab-3 in Iran with 2,000km range and payload of 750kg. Rubin warned, as early as 2006, that Iran’s missiles were “steadily increasing” in range.

What might come next? Iran has sent ballistic missiles to its militia allies Iraq, according to reports in 2018 and 2019. It has also sent Shahab variants to Syria, according to reports in 2018. It has also improved upon the missiles it has, from the Khorramshahr launch in 2017 to new naval ballistic missiles unveiled on September 27, 2020. It fired short range missiles over the Strait of Hormuz in 2018, test fired a medium range Shahab-3 missile in July 2019, and a missile capable of reaching Israel and Europe in December 2018. This was thought to be another Khorramshahr missile. Iran also unveiled the Raad 500 short range missile in February, used the precision Qiam and Fateh ballistic missiles against US bases in January 2020, unveiled a new version of the Zulfiqar missile in 2019, fired Fateh 110 missiles at Kurdish dissidents in Iraq in 2018 and targeted ISIS in Syria with Zulfiqar and Qiam missiles in October 2018. Reports said it also fired missiles at ISIS in Syria in 2017. Sources reported them to be either Shahab or upgraded Fateh 110s. In short Iran is using its missiles a lot more and using them in Iraq and Syria and exporting their technology.

This brings us back to the current situation. North Korea’s military parade and its arsenal that it built, despite sanctions, along with Iran’s progress on missile technology, illustrate how these countries have achieved success in the last decade despite efforts to prevent them developing larger missiles and better guidance for them, as well as satellite capabilities. Reports continue to warn that Iran could construct a nuclear weapon by the end of the year. Iran’s missile program increases that threat by giving Iran a potential way to deliver a weapon. North Korea’s continued success in building missiles and TELs to move them around appears to be a warning to the US and Asia. Iran similarly is pushing the envelope on similar warnings.

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