North Korea's missiles aimed for Iran
By Bertil Lintner
Kim Jong-eun's birthday was on January 8, but he received an early present on
October 10 when his father North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il clearly designated
him as his heir-apparent by allowing him to share the saluting stand at a
massive military parade in Pyongyang.
This caused much excitement among the community of international experts who
monitor that mysterious country. Less noted around the world, however, was the
significant appearance in the parade in the North Korean capital of a new class
of ballistic missile, which not only enhances the country's existing capability
but has been exported to Iran, potentially allowing
Tehran to threaten countries in western and northern Europe.
This could have significant direct military and economic consequences for
Europe in the event of a future Middle East crisis, particularly if the
Iranians do decide to develop a nuclear warhead suitable for delivery by
ballistic missiles, which are the focus of much international concern.
For the first time, the parade put it beyond uncertainty that North Korea is
continuing to develop its ballistic missile capability despite United Nations
sanctions and international concern. The existence of the new missile, dubbed
Musudan by US intelligence services and commonly referred to as BM-25, was
confirmed several years ago and it was reportedly first shown in a parade in
Pyongyang during October 2007. But only now, when the heir apparent Kim Jong-un
was being introduced to the public, were pictures made available to the rest of
the world, making it possible to analyze the potential power of the new
As many as nine North Korean-made Transport-Erector-Launchers (TELs) modelled
on Russian prototypes carried the missile with its distinctive bottle-nose
warhead past the father and the son. With a range of approximately 3,500
kilometers and a warhead of 650 kilograms, the 20-tonne missile would allow
North Korea to hit targets anywhere in South Korea and Japan, including
American bases in Okinawa, and even as far as Guam, a US territory in the
Pacific whose military facilities are being upgraded to accommodate more troops
and equipment. But in Iranian hands the missile gives them a potential
capability to hit targets in eastern France, Germany and southern Scandinavia.
According to a US cable dated February 24, 2010 - and made available by
WikiLeaks - American intelligence services are convinced that North Korea has
sold at least 19 BM-25 missiles to Iran. Other Western sources cite concern
that the BM-25 missile has been exported - not in pieces as initially believed,
but as full kits ready for assembly under North Korean supervision. And if the
relevant technology can be refined, the BM-25 could carry both conventional and
nuclear warheads - and with them serious implications for future security in
both the Asia-Pacific region and Europe.
The delivery of these missiles to Iran is believed to have taken place in 2005,
before UN Security Council sanctions, but this was only the most recent
development in North Korea's and Iran's long-standing military cooperation, and
it did not end there; the leaked US cables suggesting a much closer military
cooperation between the two countries than was previously known to the public.
The extent of the cooperation was confirmed in mid-2009 when the authorities in
Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, UAE, managed to detain a shipment of North
Korean arms destined for Iran. "This shows that there have been several more
recent deliveries of associated equipment, possibly related to the provision of
machinery required for the future manufacture of the missiles in larger numbers
in Iran," says a Western military analyst.
North Korea's BM-25 is based on the Russian SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic
missile, which was originally produced by the Makeyev Design Bureau - the same
Russian entity that produced the SCUD-B, which has been the basis for North
Korea's other liquid-propellant ballistic missile systems. Russian press
reporting from the early-1990s indicated that North Korea was seeking to
recruit large numbers of Makeyev engineers.
Access to Russian expertise may help explain why the North Koreans, to the
surprise of some observers, have not flight-tested the new BM-25. "Because the
basic design has already been tested numerous times by the Russians, there may
be no need for the North Koreans to do the same," an Asia-based military
analyst has speculated. Military analysts also suspect Iran as well as North
Korea may have enjoyed assistance from individual Russian missile technicians,
whose experience has persuaded them of the viability of the missile design.
But as its sale of the missile to Iran shows, the BM-25 is more than just a new
missile in North Korea's already impressive arsenal. It has been made for
export as well, to earn badly needed foreign exchange for the Pyongyang regime
- and to pay for the lavish lifestyle of Kim Jong-eun and other members of the
According to Western diplomatic sources, the exact value of North Korea's
exports of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons is not known, but they
remain the country's single-largest source of foreign currency earnings, even
despite current UN sanctions. "But there is no evidence to suggest that this
money is used to put food upon the tables of North Korea's starving people,"
suggests a Western diplomat.
Sales are reportedly conducted through state-owned entities such as the
Changgwang Sinyong Corporation, which also operates under the name KOMID, or
the Korean Mining and Industrial Development Corporation, as well as a host of
other names. The corporation has an office in Beijing, which military analysts
assess to play a crucial role in facilitating the procurement of material as
well as deliveries to North Korea's customers.
Changgwang Sinyong also operates in a similar manner from offices in Moscow,
whilst it maintains offices in Tehran and Damascus to arrange deliveries to its
traditional customers Iran and Syria respectively. More surprisingly offices
operate in Uganda and Namibia, whilst a new office has been opened in Dubai. In
Southeast Asia, a new customer is reported to be Myanmar, where an office has
The US Embassy in Yangon stated in a report dated August 27, 2004 - which also
has been made public by WikiLeaks - that one of their sources had said that
North Korean workers were assembling surface-to-air missiles at a "military
site in Magway Division", where a "concrete-reinforced underground facility"
was being constructed.
While North Korea's military cooperation with Myanmar - also in clear breach of
UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions - is still developing, its much
closer and older partnership with Iran is far more immediately disturbing to
Western observers. Like North Korea, Iran also conducts its missile business
through a wide range of front companies, and trusted contacts in Asia as well
as Europe. According to one Western military analyst: "Overseas procurement for
Iran's missile and nuclear programs is increasingly done through Iranian
intermediaries who act as the stated end-users for shipments, and those
intermediaries often use brokers in third countries such as the UAE and
Malaysia to further obscure the fact that shipments are destined for Iran."
Many of these third-party brokers are unaware of the intended end-use of the
material. Li Fangwei, also known as Karl Lee, is the commercial manager of
LIMMT, a Chinese firm that was first blacklisted by the US Treasury Department
on June 13, 2006 "for providing material support to Iran's missile program",
according to an official US government press release.
On April 7, 2009, Li and his companies were sanctioned once again by the United
States. Lee allegedly created front companies to access the global financial
system. The companies identified in the US Treasury Department's announcement
had names such as Ansi Metallurgy Industry Co Ltd, Blue Sky Industry
Corporation, Dalian Carbon Co Ltd, Dalian Sunny Industry & Trade C, Ltd,
Liaoning Industry and Trade Co Ltd SC (Dalian) Industry & Trade Co Ltd,
Sino Metallurgy & Minmetals Industry Co Ltd, and Wealthy Ocean Enterprises
Ltd. Li's base was at Dalian in China's Liaoning province, across the border
from North Korea. Li himself told the Wall Street Journal in a telephone
interview, extracts of which were published on April 9, 2009, that the
accusations against him were "totally a misunderstanding caused by false
intelligence information". He asserted that his components "are sold everywhere
in the world" and are not used "to make weapons".
Iran's clandestine network of suppliers of military-related material is wide,
as reflected in a February 10, 2006, report by the Turkish daily Milliyet.
Thanks to a joint Turkish-US Central Intelligence Agency operation, the paper
said, Turkish customs had managed to detain three large containers of aluminum,
or 10 tons in total, at the Iranian border. The aluminum was purchased from a
company called FOND, which was based in Milan, Italy, and then sent to the
Istanbul-based company STEP AS, owned by the family of the Iranian businessman
Milad Jafari, for delivery to the Shadi Oil Company in Iran. But the material
was apparently not destined for any oil drilling facility in Iran - it was
meant for use in its missile-producing industries.
Europeans are suspected of having been involved as well. In December 2006,
Austrian police arrested a man called Erich Frosch in connection with a
suspected sale to Iran of capacitors and accelerometers, which can be used in
civilian industry but also for atomic weapons.
More recently, in March 2009, Laura Wang-Woodford, a US citizen and the
director of Monarch Aviation, a Singapore company that had imported and
exported military and commercial aircraft components for more than 20 years,
pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to "conspiring to violate the US
trade embargo by exporting controlled aircraft components to Iran".
According to a March 13 press release from the US Justice Department:
"Wang-Woodford was arrested on Dec 23, 2007, at San Francisco International
Airport after arriving on a flight from Hong Kong, and has remained
incarcerated since then. She and her husband, Brian D Woodford, a UK citizen
who served as chairman and managing director of Monarch, were originally
charged in a 20-count indictment returned in the Eastern District of New York
on Jan 15, 2003. Brian Woodford remains a fugitive. A superseding indictment
charging Wang-Woodford with operating Jungda International Pte Ltd, a
Singapore-based successor to Monarch was returned on May 22, 2008."
According to Western experts, many of the dual-use goods which brokers like
Monarch deal in can have applications in nuclear and ballistic missile
programs, and the Iranians are increasingly asking such brokers, who already
often sail close to the wind legally, to supply them with goods with more
direct weapons of mass destruction applications.
Kim Jong-eun, a Swiss-educated schoolboy who has now become a four-star general
despite his apparent lack of any military experience, and gained the new title,
Yongmyong-nlan Tongji, or "Brilliant Comrade", may not have understood much of
what was put on display in the military parade in Pyongyang on October 10.
And his personal focus may subsequently have been on the train carrying
birthday gifts of a large number of expensive watches and TV sets from his
father, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, which was derailed at Sinuiju on the
border with China in mid-December 2009. But he will be very aware that his
continued access to these and other luxuries is heavily dependent on the
continued sale of military hardware such as the BM-25.
North Korea's succession plan may appear farcical, almost comical, but its
newly-developed deadly wares are no joke - nor is the fact that countries, as
well as a worldwide network of individuals, are willing to trade in military
equipment with North Korea and Iran despite UN Security Council sanctions.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North
Korea under the Kim Clan. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media