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How Did North Korea Acquire Iskander Missiles?

January 24, 2022
Via North Korean media.

Two weeks ago North Korea’s military conducted “test fires” of its newer tactical weapons just days apart. These are often large diameter rocket artillery or short-range ballistic missiles meant for bombarding targets in South Korea. Photos released by state-owned news agency Rodong Sinmun on January 15 showed a “railway-borne” transporter for a KN-23 SRBM. (See photo above.) The KN-23 is understood to be a copy of the Russian Iskander-M missile and its earliest known appearance in North Korean propaganda was in May 2019. Although its external resemblance to the Iskander-M is startling other details about this North Korean missile resist analysis. By January 18 another “test fire” was carried out with a tracked launcher for a different missile type.

Russia does offer the Iskander-E SRBM for export and it’s even advertised by the state-owned Rosoboronexport that oversees all commerce in locally manufactured military products. But the Iskander-E system, which is provided its own 8×8 wheeled transporter and a separate loader vehicle, carries two missiles with a maximum range of 280 kilometers; this makes it MTCR compliant. Russia has sold these missiles to Algeria and Armenia but there are persistent rumors some have reached Syria, whose battered military still maintains a ballistic missile arsenal. The Iskander-M is the superior variant used by the Russian military and has a maximum range estimated to reach 500 km while one US-based think tank claims North Korea’s copy exceeds this.

How the Korean People’s Army (KPA) acquired its own enhanced Iskanders is baffling although some Arab countries have always maintained “technical cooperation” with North Korea over decades. For example, it was Egypt who first supplied the KPA with R-17 missiles, better known as Scud B’s, at an ill-defined period in the 1970s. The North Korean ballistic missile program was in full swing by the late 1980s and helped along by exchanges with Iran, Pakistan, Libya, and Syria. It was also Syria who transferred road mobile Tochka SRBMs to North Korea and these were copied and mass-produced by the 1990s.

The enduring friendship between Damascus and Pyongyang is often lost in grand narratives about Middle Eastern politics. But the strength of this alliance has never been acknowledged even when President Bashar Al-Assad himself okayed a nuclear weapons program that was being directed by North Korean engineers and scientists until Israel bombed the research facility in 2007. To this day, North Korea maintains a covert presence in Syria and expressed its willingness to rebuild the country. There’s no doubt military-to-military ties remain firm since North Korea can supply all the expertise and weaponry needed for enhancing the Syrian armed forces.

The KPA’s relationship with Syria and its arsenal of Eastern Bloc and Soviet weapons can be one explanation for transferring the technical know-how for assembling Iskander missiles. Since 2015 the Russian military carried out a long-term intervention to save Damascus and this meant deploying advanced weapon systems that were tested and proven against Syrian rebel groups and terrorists–among them the superior Iskander-M. For North Korean delegations to visit Syrian military sites isn’t out of the ordinary and neither is consulting with other allies such as Iran and Russia. However, a more convenient explanation is the KPA and its partners in higher education and state-owned laboratories solicited input from Russian experts and this paved the way for local assembly of Iskander SRBMs.

Since 2019 the KPA’s Iskander-like missiles have undergone tests in three platforms. These are in “railway-borne” launchers, on large wheeled transporters, and on tracked transporters. The variety of platforms looks like an attempt at concealing the missiles from detection and retaliatory strikes in a future conflict. There are many recent North Korean weapon systems that are based on Russian technology and the most plausible explanation why is Moscow is allowing its own state-owned military-industrial sector to cooperate with North Korea on a for-profit basis. Either this or a “third country” in the Middle East is facilitating the tried and tested scientific-technical cooperation the KPA badly need.

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