Monday, 2 November 2020

Inconvenient arms: North Korean weapons in the Middle East


By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer
 
Over time, stories detailing North Korea's arms exports to countries in the Middle East have become more and more common. Though any military link to the DPRK is hardly something nations have been likely to boast about, the actors in these stories are familiar and, in a certain sense, unsurprising. Egypt and Yemen were willing customers in the past, but Iran and Syria (and the non-state actors they support) maintain quite well documented links to the present day. Exposing the extent of these links is by no means trivial and definitely an interesting subject of its own; today however we shed light on a subject that is much less familiar.

Maintaining military parity with your regional neighbours has long been an important consideration in the Middle East, and often an objective bought at considerable expense. Mere monetary costs aren't the only way in which a nation might end up paying for its arms procurements however, and weaponry that at first seemed a bargain has over time become an inconvience to some nations. While it may be long forgotten now, there was a time when North Korean armament was quite advanced compared to what was available on the open market (insofar as that was ever a thing), and their near monopoly on ballistic missile exports to non-(Western- or Soviet-)aligned gave them a significant revenue boost. 
 

Take the case of the United Arab Emirates. Like surprisingly many countries across the globe, it was at one point quite eager to invest in the latest technology on offer by the DPRK, yet it has carefully avoided making this fact known to observers since. Preciously few images of North Korean arms in the UAE are publically available, and there exist even fewer written sources that detail the history of the deals that were conducted. Yet what little information is available tells an intriguing tale. At the end of the 1980s, the UAE entered negotiations with the DPRK for an arms deal that would alledgedly end up including the transfer of Hwasong-5 missiles (a copy of the R-17E "Scud-B"), anti-aircraft guns, self-propelled artillery, multiple-rocket launchers and munitions in 1989, at a cost of 160 million U.S. dollars. Of course, it is the missiles that are of most interest to international observers, and therefore also the sole aspect about which anything of substance is known. Although a U.S. national intelligence estimate in 1991 suspected between 18 and 24 missiles had been delivered (and an unknown number of launchers), this number was apparently revised upwards to 25 by the time of the 106th Congress on U.S. Policy toward North Korea in 1999. The conventional story is that the UAE was dissatisfied on the quality of the Hwasong-5, and quickly put them in storage awaiting dismantlement. This politically convenient tale doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well however, as we will see later.

In the meantime, it can only be assumed that the rest of the weaponry was inducted into the UAE's armed forces without a hitch, as North Korean artillery systems have been wont to do in a myriad of other militaries in the past. And indeed, somewhere along the way the wrong piece of footage of a military exercise made its way to the public domain, providing us with a first look at what the UAE got for its money.
 
North Korean 240mm MRLs firing during a UAE armed forces exercise.

These 240mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) are well known in the DPRK and such countries as Iran, Myanmar and Angola. At the time of their introduction in North Korea they were some of the longest ranged and heaviest MRLs in existence, capable of lobbing a warhead of 90 kilogrammes at targets up to 43 kilometres away. In the variant received by the UAE, each truck carries twelve tubes, meaning a typical barrage from four vehicles can saturate a target with 48 rockets. The trucks in question are peculiar, and it would take a long time for better footage to emerge that allowed their identification. Of course, one could not expect the UAE itself to be forthcoming with such footage, and in the meantime these particular pieces of armament underwent a transformation that would secure their obscurity for quite some time longer. 

In early June 2020, soldiers of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) finally wrestled over control over Tarhuna, which had been held by Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA). In the process, they encountered a number of MRLs that were at the time completely unknown. Tarhuna had been a major LNA stronghold in Western Libya, and since the LNA has received military support from the UAE, a link was easily established. The launch tubes themselves were identified easily enough; they were of the same type delivered by Turkey's Roketsan to be installed on the massive Jobaria Defense Systems Multiple Cradle Launcher. The truck and erection mechanism were more of a conundrum however, unless one has prior knowledge of North Korea's arms deliveries to the UAE. Indeed, the erection mechanism is then easily identified as the one used on North Korean twelve-tube 240mm MRLs – which are notably different from those used by other nations. The truck is also of note, being an uparmoured variant of the Italian Iveco 260/330.35 (apparently also known as the ACP90). This type isn't operated by North Korea, but the fact that it for a long time lacked a proper heavy truck industry to support its military needs meant that it often improvised by adapting foreign imported designs. In this case, it would appear that they simply did not deliver the trucks at all, possibly assisting in modifying suitable platforms to carry the MRLs.

The mystery MRL encountered by the GNA upon capturing Tarhuna.
 
A UAE armed forces-operated Iveco 320.45 WTM tank transporter. The highly similar Iveco 260/330.35 is also thought to be in service.

Since it's unknown how many MRLs the DPRK delivered to the UAE, and the UAE subsequently to the LNA, it is certainly possible that a number still serve in the UAE's armed forces. However, the fact that their unique 240mm munition (which in recent years has seen upgrades to extend their range to 60 or even 70 kilometres, and to include GPS guidance for high-precision targeting) can no longer be delivered without incurring the ire of multiple sanctions regimes means that likely all were modified to fire the Turkish 122mm munition. 
 
What about the other equipment delivered in 1989? Though the DPRK produces and operates a plethora of self-propelled guns (SPGs), there is just one that would have been very interesting to the UAE in 1989. The so-called Koksan (or Juche gun, in North Korean parlance), was at the time of its introduction a truly unique beast. With an indigenous two-piece munition of 170mm in diameter and an absolutely massive barrel length, it was capable of attaining ranges of some 50 kilometres, the longest of any artillery system of the time. The older 1973 variant was previously exported to Iran, which used it to shell Iraqi-held positions and oil fields in Kuwait (as punishment for their support of Iraq) from outside retaliation range during the Iran-Iraq war. The variant obtained by the UAE is the newer 1989 Koksan however, as rare images from a secluded section at the 2005 IDEX in the UAE betray. Showcased alongside a North Korean ZPU-4, this artillery gun is still one of the most powerful in existence – and certainly in the DPRK. 
 
The "M-1989" Koksan as displayed at the IDEX 2005 in the UAE.

Is there more? Possibly. A recent documentary by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger that unraveled the inner workings of North Korean arms deals through the use of a mole included photographs of some North Korean weapons systems. One of these, found in an arms brochure, appears to show an early Hwasong-5 in desert colours. Remarkably, the traditional MAZ-543 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) has been swapped for one based on the German MAN KAT-1 truck. As we've noted before, the North Koreans had difficulty with producing trucks such as these TELs and thus resorted to importing them, as noted in a 1993 New York Times article. Nevertheless, the camouflage of this particular TEL and its surroundings indicate that this image was not taken in the DPRK. The usual suspects, Iran, Libya or Syria are certainly possible (the latter standing out specifically), but in each of these nations the TEL would have stood out in available imagery. The latter two nations have had their Scud TELs thoroughly exposed by a decade of nation-wide fighting, and the former has always been remarkably open in showing its holdings, rare North Korean TELs included. This leaves the possibility of the photo originating from a nation like the UAE (or even, as we will see, Saudi Arabia), which unlike the aforementioned countries is a prolific user of MAN trucks.

A Hwasong-5 based on a MAN KAT-1 TEL, as seen in a North Korean arms brochure showcased in The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea.

Whatever is the case, the 1989 deal did not quite spell the end for the UAE's North Korean adventures, because despite their supposed dissatisfaction with the Hwasong-5s, they soon entered negotiations for yet another round of ballistic missiles. Delivered in 1999, these systems promptly triggered a U.S. review of the possibility of emplacing sanctions on the UAE under U.S. missile sanctions laws, though the matter was kept under tight wraps. In response, the UAE's Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayid (MbZ) personally assured the U.S. government in response that the total number of ballistic missiles was fewer than 30, divided roughly evenly amongst the Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 (an upgraded "Scud-C" which can reach targets up to 500 kilometres away), and that no additional systems would be acquired. MbZ then apparently saw an opportunity to turn the situation to the UAE's advantage, and started negotiations for the procurement of MGM-140 ATACMS tactical missiles and MQ-1B Predator UCAVs, in exchange for handing over its ballistic missiles and entering the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR). The number of Scuds he acknowledged the UAE had at the time was 38 – a notable increase since the previous count, yet one likely to have been caused not by new deliveries but merely by a lack of accuracy of the first count. When the U.S. wasn't forthcoming with these systems (instead offering unarmed Predator UAVs, and later ATACMS at a price that was considered too steep), the UAE also backed off from the deal and simply retained its missile force. 

Some have speculated that a third delivery of ballistic missiles occurred in the 2000s, but so far there is no conclusive evidence to prove this is indeed the case. Nevertheless, there are reports that indicate a continued involvement from the North Koreans to modern day. Despite U.S. inquiries about the matter, UAE representatives in August 2008 visited the DPRK, just months before a similar visit from a Myanmarese delegation (which, it should be mentioned, even took a look at a "Scud missile factory"). Whether this resulted in any purchase is of course unknown, but as recently as 2015 it was clear relations had not abated much. Through an intermediary, the UAE purchased close to 100 million U.S. dollars' worth of armament in support of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, including machine guns, rifles and rockets. The fact that the Houthis which they are fighting there are themselves equipped with various types of North Korean armament (though none acquired directly in recent years) is perhaps not purely ironic: the UAE's continued purchases of North Korean arms may also be aimed at discouraging the DPRK from providing weaponry to its adversaries. Surprisingly, this did not trigger hefty sanctions on the UAE, which can presumably only be explained by its preferential position as one of the U.S.' staunchest allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 
 
It is truly remarkable what may be occluded from public knowledge if the interests of the parties involved align to make it so. There is little doubt that the UAE's ventures are by no means unique, yet so long as no new information or imagery leaks chances of these events coming to light are slim. As such, OSINT analysts are reduced to speculation and vague inferences. An interesting case in point is Saudi Arabia, whose strategic capabilities are also one of the most opaque in the world. Their acquisition of Chinese DF-3A intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in 1988 was publically affirmed when they showcased them during a massive military parade in 2014. Much more recent developments are documented sporadically in a variety of sources, but none mention the delivery of Scud-type missile systems to the kingdom. It is therefore quite significant that the former deputy defence minister of Saudi Arabia was presented a glass case with three models of ballistic missiles on visiting the country's strategic missile force in 2013, two of which were not known to be in the Saudi inventory.

Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud being presented models of three ballistic missiles presumably in Saudi service in 2013.
 
The largest of the three was clearly an accurate representation of the DF-3A, and taking the model to be at scale the smallest makes for a close match with the R-17 "Scud", or its North Korean Hwasong-5/6 derivatives. The middle missile is the greatest mystery of the three, featuring what appears to be a distinctive triconic nosecone such as the ones seen on the Hwasong-7 ("Nodong-1") and Hwasong-9 missiles, and the former's foreign variants. Based on such scarce evidence a link with North Korea can hardly be established. Nevertheless, it is clear that some transfer of ballistic missiles yet unknown occurred in Saudi Arabia's murky past – a transfer which it is less comfortable highlighting then that of its Chinese DF-3A IRBMs. The list of countries willing to supply Scud-type systems to Saudi Arabia in this time period is surprisingly short, especially when one considers the indications that a larger, more advanced system was also delivered. 

As arms deals conducted in the previous century remain a matter of extreme secrecy to these nations, there is little hope of conclusively uncovering the full history of North Korean arms sales in the Middle East any time soon. Given the potential embarrassment to the parties in question, these inconvenient weapons are kept securely in military bases behind high fences and bunker doors, or are otherwise dismantled before anyone ever could find out. Will we ever find out the full story? Perhaps. 
 
Perhaps however, if they are careful enough, the truth will simply die in these dark places.

 

2 comments:

  1. Any info on North Korean SCUDs and other weapons in Syrian army service?

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  2. Ahhh....So that was where those 2 or 3 pictures of that koksan were from.I`d wondered about it for several years now and knew that it clearly had to be somewhere in the mena region but the uae would`ve been down a ways on my list of possibilities.Well spotted!

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