North Korea, China and Iran: The Axis of Missiles?
As some of you reading this piece may remember, in a piece I published with the National Interest back in May of this year, I addressed January 7, 2020, Iranian launching of ballistic missiles at American bases located in Iraq. As I addressed in the article, one set of the missiles launched were in the “Qiam” series, missiles based on the North Korean built (and proliferated to Iran) Scud C system. While this was only the latest example of North Korean assistance that ended up in Iranian combat systems and targeting American or allied forces, it does remind one of the many poorly informed analysts who have repeatedly (and incorrectly) claimed that North Korean proliferation “declined” after its “heyday” in the 1980s and 1990s. This is unambiguously incorrect. In fact, the threat from Tehran is very real and is exacerbated by the presence of North Korean advisors and technicians in Iran today – a presence that never stopped and shows no signs of ending.
In my previous article, I addressed the North Korean sale to Iran of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) easily convertible to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), based on a Ukrainian engine design that was apparently the basis for the 80-ton rocket booster our own Treasury department sanctioned Iran for in early 2016. The evidence mounts to prove this assessment, but it also leads us to another piece of the puzzle – China. Thus, it is appropriate to conduct a brief review of the history of perhaps the most compelling North Korea – Iran missile deal – a deal that will eventually lead us to China.
To recap the information in my previous article, according to press reports in 2013, the North Koreans were developing and assisting the Iranians with the development of an 80-ton rocket booster – presumably for a an ICBM. In 2015, further developments were revealed in the press, when it was disclosed that several shipments of the aforementioned rocket from North Korea to Iran had occurred even as JCPOA talks were ongoing. In 2016, following the conclusion of the JCPOA talks, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals for violations of sanctions imposed on North Korea. To put a finer point on it, North Korean and Iranian officials had visited both nations. This was done so that Iran could procure an 80-ton rocket booster for a missile that North Korea was developing at the time. The names and companies (including front companies) involved are in the actual Treasury Department document.
In 2017, North Korea tested what they called the “Hwasong-12.” This missile is an IRBM with a range of 4,500 kilometers (or more). It turns out, the Hwasong-12 is powered by a rocket engine reportedly procured from the Ukrainians (according to the Ukrainians, illegally, under the table, and unknown to officials, or not at all), known as the RD-250. This engine is reportedly powered by 80 tons of thrust at sea level, thus likely making it the system that was known (for several years) as the “80-ton rocket booster” that North Korea collaborated on and proliferated to Iran. Later during 2017, North Korea tested two ICBM’s. The first, the “Hwasong-14” is assessed to be capable of hitting Anchorage in Alaska, while the second, the “Hwasong-15,” is assessed by many analysts to be capable of hitting the east coast of the United States. Both ICBM’s use the “Hwasong-12” as their first stage, powered by the RD-250 engine with 80 tons of thrust. And now it appears that this Hwasong-12 technology (and likely the technology that uses this as a first stage for a more advanced ICBM) is being sold to Iran currently and in the future based on a deal brokered by the Chinese.
This month (October 2020) the long UN embargo on Iranian weapons trade ended. According to press reports, this has now opened the way for the military component of the already announced “25 Year Deal” between China and Iran, starting in November.
It now appears that as part of the military component of China’s new military deal with Iran, North Korea will reportedly also provide weapons and technology to Tehran. They will be paid for these services with Iranian oil – something of course that North Korea is badly in need of. Of note, North Korea is reported to be providing among its weapons and technology support, the aforementioned Hwasong-12 missiles and will also provide development of liquid-powered rocket engines for ICBM’s (likely for the second stage of an ICBM). This confirms what (if one is to connect the dots) has been ongoing since the JCPOA talks (2013). But now, it appears that a more long-term deal on these and other systems is being brokered – with Chinese support. The liquid-powered rocket engines are most likely to be what will be used in the second stage of an ICBM, just as North Korea has used these engines to power the launches of its own Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles (the Hwasong-15 uses two clustered RD-250 type engines as its first stage). While Iran may call their “new” system a “Space Launch Vehicle,” because we have already seen it deployed as an ICBM, we know that at the very least it will in reality be a duel use system that can easily be converted to an ICBM. Thus, according to press sources and other sources that at least for now remain anonymous, what we are now seeing is a triangular, long-term deal involving Iran, China, and North Korea.
What does this mean? The long-term arms sales relationship between North Korea and Iran has been ongoing and well known since the early 1980s. But now it appears that this relationship will also involve China – for the long-term. One would have thought that with China (and perhaps Russia) openly being willing to sell sophisticated military systems to Iran, this would push North Korea out as Tehran’s major military arms benefactor. Instead, it appears that China’s new and profitable relationship with Iran will actually enable continued North Korean arms sales to Tehran. While China (and perhaps Russia) are likely to be selling things such as sophisticated aircraft, upgraded tanks, and modernized command and control systems, North Korea will probably still be proliferating things such as small arms, military training for both Iranians and the proxy groups they support, and of course ballistic missiles.
Iran will thus have even more resources to continue its quest to become the hegemon in the Middle East, and all of the violence, instability, and terrorism, that it will entail. China will gain a solid foothold in the Middle East and the hard currency and energy resources that Beijing needs (about half of China’s oil exports either come from nations in the Persian Gulf region or transit the Suez Canal). North Korea will be able to continue its long and profitable relationship with Iran (now also coordinated with the “Iran-China “25-Year Plan”). In short, all three of these nations have nefarious plans for the future that will enable violence, create instability, and perhaps even create more rogue regimes in the Middle East. To put it simply these three regimes now have plans to promote and support evil – together. Thus, one is led to ask, are we looking at the new “Axis of Evil?” Perhaps as importantly (and one should also think of this in the terms of the new missiles and other systems we saw paraded in Pyongyang’s recent military parade), if you see it in North Korea today, you will see it in Iran tomorrow.
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.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (not pictured) guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.