No, we are not just being opportunistic or grabbing for headlines. And no, we do not have evidence that North Korea is responsible for shipping weapons directly to Syria (see our our post on the recent DPRK-Syria agreement) , Hezbollah or Hamas, although recent interdictions–most notably in Thailand–certainly suggest that such links through Iran are possible.
But the unfortunate turn of events in Gaza demonstrates that such connections are not the only way that illicit arms sales have adverse effects. First, we increasingly need to think not only about trade in goods but trade in services: technology transfer and cooperation between North Korea and its trading partners that is much harder to control. And second, revelations that have surfaced in the last couple of days–entirely by coincidence–remind us that parts and components as much as whole weapons systems are at issue.
Hamas has access to a wide-ranging arsenal of weapons, but two have generated particular attention: the Iranian (and perhaps Syrian) made Fajr-3 and Fajr 5 rockets. The Middle East blog Vital Perspective, whatever its political views, has the most succinct summary of the two systems and one that broadly triangulates with Global Security and other sources we trust. The heyday of North Korean missile and rocket exports was the 1980s, and one of the products on offer was a 240mm M-1985 multiple rocket launcher (MRL). This system was exported to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, subsequently produced under license as the Fajr-3 and reportedly supplied to Hezbollah. The specs: the Fajr-3 is a 5 meter-long, solid-fueled rocket that can carry a 45kg payload around 40 km. It was implicated in the 2006 Hezbollah attack on Haifa; some sense of the damage can be seen in video of the aftermath of that incident.
Bloomberg provided a useful overview of the growth of the Iranian industry and its connections with Hezbollah at the time of the conflict between Lebanon and Israel in 2006; it bears re-reading. Also recall that it was reported in 2006 that Iranian observers had been present at the North Korean missile tests that summer, which included both longer- and shorter-range missiles.
(This Fajr-3 under discussion here should not be confused with the Fajr-3 long-range missile ).
The Fajr-5 has Chinese origins, although some sources have made a North Korean link to it as well. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, China exported a 302mm WS-1 MRL to Iran where it underwent modification, local production and export to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, again clearly with Syrian consent. The Fajr-5 is somewhat longer than the Fajr-3 (6.6m) and carries a 90kg warhead to a distance of 75km. These rockets were the ones fired at Tel Aviv. The IDF has one being unloaded in Gaza on tape.
The AFP has now reported on a China-North Korea-Syria link. In June, South Korea reported an incident that had occurred in May to the UN Sanctions committee: graphite cylinders were found on a Chinese-registered freighter in Pusan amidst cargo bound for a Syrian company with North Korean links. One speculation: the materials could have been used for rocket nozzles and re-entry vehicle nose tips.
To reiterate our main point: proliferators and arms traders do not control the behavior of those to whom they sell. North Korea has been caught in the last several years trying to sell weapons to Iran. But the connections are of longer-standing. As we learned from the A.Q. Kahn exports to North Korea, the effects of technology transfers are of longer duration as purchasers modify them and then deploy them to their own purposes, in this case stirring up trouble on Israel’s borders. And second, we need to think of the international production networks for missiles. North Korea may have a harder time exporting whole rockets, but it is clearly still engaged in parts and components supply which, like technology sharing, is harder to interdict.