Analysis: The changing Mideast role of North Korea

Longtime president Kim Jong-il to be succeeded by son.

December 20, 2011 01:32
3 minute read.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il 311 r. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In April 2008, Congress received a briefing from the CIA on Israel’s mysterious air strike in northeastern Syria, which took place six-months earlier, against what turned out to be a nuclear reactor.

During the long closed-door session, one picture stood out. It was of two men.

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One was identified as Ibrahim Othman, the director of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.

The other man was identified as Chon Chibu, one of the leading members of North Korea’s nuclear program.

If that wasn’t enough to demonstrate the relationship between the countries, the CIA proceeded to show images of North Korea’s reactor and the one destroyed by Israel in Syria. They were almost identical. And the CIA told the members of Congress that North Korea had built the Syrian reactor.

North Korea’s involvement in the Middle East has not been limited to the help Pyongyang provided Syrian President Bashar Assad in building a nuclear reactor and it is unlikely to stop even after the death Monday of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader for the past 17 years. He will be succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late twenties.

North Korea’s greatest mark in the Middle East though appears to have been left on the assistance it has provided Syria and Iran in developing and producing long-range ballistic missiles, some of which can carry nuclear warheads.


Syria’s first supplier of missiles was the Soviet Union, which was replaced in the 1990s by North Korea. Syria’s Scud-D missiles, for example, are believed to be modeled after North Korea’s Rodong missile. Both have a range of about 1,000 kilometers and can carry non-conventional warheads.

Iran is a similar story, although in recent years the student, Iran, has overtaken the teacher, North Korea.

Iran began equipping itself with ballistic missiles during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It received its first shipment of Soviet-made Scud missiles from Libya and later turned to North Korea, which became its main supplier.

When the war ended, the Iranians found themselves with only a limited number of Scud-missiles. Ten years later, however, they already had their first operational Shahab-3 missile, which was originally purchased from North Korea together with a built-in production line.

Today, Iran is believed to have several hundred Shahabs and dozens of corresponding launchers. The missile has a range of around 2,000 kilometers and can carry a nuclear warhead.

In addition, Israel believes the Iranians are capable of independently manufacturing their own version of North Korea’s BM-25 missile, which is believed to have a range of over 4,000 kilometers.

In 2009, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was then the head of Military Intelligence, opened a small window into the world of cooperation between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and North Korea.

Hamas and Hezbollah representatives, Yadlin said, regularly attend weapons tests in Syria and Iran and on occasion are joined by engineers and scientists from North Korea. Each member of the group has a role, he continued.

The engineering work is usually done in Iran, the production is split between Iran and Syria and the weapons are then exported to Hezbollah and Hamas. The North Koreans are there to observe.

For Israel, the current move is to wait and watch.

Its concern will be over the possibility that North Korea will look to bolster its alliance with Iran and Syria, its only real friends in the world today.

Former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton raised the possibility on Monday that Kim Jong-un might have difficulty in stabilizing his regime and will need to sell off some of North Korea’s military capabilities to provide for his people.

If this happens, Israel will need to be on alert to look out for the construction of new nuclear reactors in places like Syria, or the arrival of large shipments of missiles to terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

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