Unpopular Allies

The Syria-North Korea Scud Missile Link

Eli Lake reports on how North Korea helped the Assad regime with Scud missile technology—and what’s next.

Herve Bar/AFP, via Getty

In the same week that Syria started using its Scud missiles against rebels, North Korea tested a long-range missile thousands of miles away over the Pacific Ocean.

The two developments are more connected that it might appear. North Korea is a supplier and adviser to Syria’s Scud-missile program, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials. The North Koreans also have helped President Bashar al-Assad to develop a program for the Syrian regime to make the medium- to long-range missiles itself.

“These two things are 100 percent connected,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a retired Navy commander who closely monitored the North Korean Scud program while in the military.

Harmer and other retired and current U.S. intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that North Korea and Iran have closely cooperated on Scud programs for at least 20 years, according to U.S. assessments. “Everything North Korean missile engineers figure out about Scuds, within three months the Iranians know about it,” Harmer said. “And the Syrians would not be able to shoot Scuds without active Iranian involvement and North Korean involvement.”

The Syrian military’s use of Scuds in a civil war that has already claimed more than 40,000 lives is important for two reasons. To start, some analysts see the use of Scuds as an escalation and a potential step toward deploying chemical weapons. While chemical rounds can be delivered through artillery or combat aircraft, the safest way to deliver the weapon is by a Scud missile, as the toxic explosion is much farther away from where the weapon is fired.

Scuds also are hard to aim accurately. Whereas a U.S.-made Tomahawk missile contains two kinds of guidance systems and can be aimed so precisely that it could hit a window in a building from hundreds of miles away, scuds have antiquated systems. “You aim a Scud at a city and hope it lands somewhere important,” said one retired U.S. intelligence officer.

The North Koreans, according to Harmer and another active U.S. intelligence official, began their Scud program at least 40 years ago, when they began to reverse-engineer Russian Scuds sold to the country by a third country. The cooperation with Iran is believed to have begun 20 years ago.

U.S. intelligence agencies began to pick up the North Korean-Iranian Scud cooperation in the 1990s through satellite photos, signal intercepts, and other means. But like most intelligence, the information was usually hedged, and the U.S. government did not know for sure. That changed in 2002, however, when the Spanish Navy, acting on intelligence from the United States, boarded the So San, a North Korean freighter in the Arabian Sea. The boarding party found Scud missiles hidden in bags of cement. While the ship’s crew said it was headed to Yemen, a U.S. ally in the war on terror, U.S. intelligence concluded that the shipments were bound for Iran. Eventually, the Spanish let the shipment go through to Yemen, but the discovery was nonetheless considered an intelligence victory. Harmer, who worked on the intelligence behind the So San, said of the interdiction: “We knew about the relationship before, but this is the first time we got hard proof.”

The technology Iran obtained about Scuds from North Korea also has been shared with Syria. Iran and Syria have been allies since the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war. In 1991, Syria sided with the United States in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein while Iran, Iraq’s main rival, was neutral.

But cooperation between Iran and Syria increased in 2006, when Assad signed a mutual-defense pact with Iran. Since Assad has faced a popular uprising, his closest support has been from Iran. U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran sends munitions, personnel, and other weapons on average every week through cargo planes. In June, Jane’s, the leading trade publication on military hardware, reported that North Korean engineers were assisting Syrian engineers in developing Scud missiles at Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center outside the city of Hama.