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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

North Korea’s Destabilizing Role in the Middle East

Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

On Sept. 9, British authorities revealed that North Korea’s rapid advancement in nuclear capabilities may be due in large part to Iranian assistance. According to this report, after decades of nuclear-related assistance from North Korea, Iran now has the technological capability of helping its patron in a symbiotic relationship that threatens the United States and its allies.


Iran is carefully watching how the world responds to North Korea’s accelerated campaign to test and deploy a nuclear weapons arsenal with long-range delivery systems. Tehran will undoubtedly draw its own lessons from the North Korean experience. 


North Korea has a history of destabilizing the Middle East.


Officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea has involved itself in the Middle East for decades. Beginning in the 1960s, the country provided cheap military hardware, terrorist training and mercenaries to the radical Arab rejectionist camp confronting Israel. Israeli pilots even directly encountered North Koreans flying Soviet-produced MiG fighter jets for the Syrian and Egyptian air forces in both the 1967 and 1973 wars. During the same period, Pyongyang was a principal sponsor of the Palestinian terrorist splinter faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), providing the group with the means to execute some of its most brutal attacks on Israeli territory.


Recently, North Korea has played a significant role in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology in the Middle East.


  • Nuclear technology: North Korea has provided both Iran and Syria significant help in those countries’ respective nuclear programs. In Syria, Pyongyang helped build a covert nuclear reactor in a remote desert area of eastern Syria near Deir ez-Zor. The construction of such a reactor in Syria was a red line for Israeli decision-makers, forcing Israel to send fighter jets to destroy the facility. Had this reactor been completed, the plutonium it produced could well have given the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies in Tehran a strategic capability that would have imperiled Israel and made the subsequent Syria civil war even more catastrophic.

  • While not much is readily available in the public domain about North Korea’s support of Iran’s nuclear program, some reports indicate that Iran has sent scientists to North Korea, while North Korea has likewise sent technical experts to Iran to bolster Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran has also reportedly sent observers to North Korean nuclear missile tests.

  • Ballistic missiles: North Korea has provided significant material support to Iran’s ballistic missile program and has even sold Iran advanced ballistic missiles, in turn allowing it to further develop its home-grown missile industry. Notably, Iran’s Shahab missiles—which can now target all of the Middle East and much of Europe—are in fact based upon a North Korean design. 

  • The DPRK has recently launched multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missiles able to reach the United States. These tests will provide critical data and technical lessons to help Iran’s own program to perfect a delivery system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

  • Chemical weapons: Unsurprisingly, North Korea has also exported other forms of “strategic expertise” to its Middle East allies, including chemical weapons. In addition to a growing nuclear arsenal, the North Korean regime has amassed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of poison gas—to include thousands of tons of nerve agents and other toxic chemicals—with which to threaten South Korea, a key U.S. ally. 

  • One of the deadliest exports to date has been the transfer of chemical weapons production technology, expertise and materials to the Assad regime—which in turn has horrifically used these deadly weapons against its own people in the ongoing Syrian civil war. The Israeli Air Force reportedly targeted a Syrian center of North Korean-supported chemical weapons development when it struck the Scientific Studies and Research Center on Sept. 7.


The greatest impact of North Korea’s mounting strategic challenge as an emerging nuclear proliferator may be the precedent it sets…particularly in the eyes of likeminded aggressors. 


Iran’s leaders are viewing the unfolding situation in North Korea with great interest, studying just how far the international community will go to respond to Kim Jong-un’s aggression. Based on this experience, Iran will be able to better plan its own path to strategic nuclear weapons capability to threaten Israel, U.S. forces and other U.S. allies in the Middle East and beyond.


Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report