The Rise & Rise Of North Korea! How Heavily Sanctioned Pyongyang Is Emerging As A Military Powerhouse

The Korean War in the 1950s helped revive the Japanese economy. The Long War in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s played a highly significant role in the rise of South Korea as an important industrial power.

The two countries reaped enormous benefits for participating in the then-war efforts that dominated the geopolitical contours of the world those days. Similarly, the ongoing war in Ukraine and the skirmish in the Middle East seem to be a big boon for North Korea.

It is not that North Korea will be another Japan or South Korea. However, the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are considerably enabling North Korea to obtain food, fuel, and technology for its basic survival as a country. All this is becoming possible due to the mass production of arms and missiles for Russia and Hamas (and its mentor Iran and supporter Syria).

Arms seized from the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 reportedly included F-7 rocket-propelled grenades manufactured by the Pyongyang regime. Based on video imagery of the October 7 assault, it is said that the terrorist group was employing North Korea’s Type 58 self-loading rifle, a variant of the Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Israeli officials say that 10% of the weapons used by Hamas in the attacks originated in North Korea.

According to South Korean intelligence officials, in addition to providing Hamas with the means to murder, Pyongyang may also have assisted with the know-how. They say that the tactic underlying the Hamas attack was remarkably similar to a North Korean simulated military training exercise in 2016 to carry an assault on the South Korean presidential residence in Seoul. 

It is well known otherwise that the relationship between Hamas and North Korea stretches back for years. Daily Telegraph, the British newspaper, had reported way back in 2014 that Hamas had made a down payment to Pyongyang to acquire missiles and communications equipment as part of a more significant arms deal.

The paper noted that “Hamas has forged close links with North Korea, which is keen to support groups that are opposed to Western interests in the region.” It also cited unnamed Israeli military commanders as saying that North Korean experts had been advising Hamas on how to build its network of underground terror tunnels based on those that Pyongyang constructed decades ago beneath the demilitarized zone with South Korea.

It is equally well known that North Korean arms to Hamas reach through Syria and Iran, with which Pyongyang has excellent relations. Experts on arms- trade say that Syria has purchased Scud C’s and Scud D’s from North Korea “as well as chemical weapons.” North Korean fighter pilots had aided the Syrian Air Force during its 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. During the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea helped the Syrian Arab Army upgrade its T-54 and T-55 tanks and supplied Syria with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). 

North Korea has resolutely supported President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. A United Nations Panel of Experts has found out that  Syria welcomed at least 800 North Korean military personnel and laborers during the second half of 2019 for the development of its arms industry, particularly the ones dealing with ballistic missiles.

However, in the Middle East, it is Iran, which is North Korea’s closest friend. Pyongyang-Teheran security partnership only gained momentum after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. North Korea began supplying artillery shells to Iran in March 1980. Throughout the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, it facilitated clandestine arms shipments from the then-Soviet Union and China to Iran.

During the 1990s, North Korea started supplying Iran with ballistic missile-related equipment, such as Scud transporter-erector-launchers and Nodong missile engines. North Korean long-range ballistic missiles became the basis for the Iranian Shahab missile series, which currently threatens Israel.

Similarly, the Iranian Navy’s Ghadir-class submarines were said to have been modeled after North Korean prototypes.

If the Western intelligence community is to be believed, missile cooperation between Iran and North Korea has provided Iran with an increase in its military capabilities. These include collaboration between the two in the nuclear field, a la North Korea-Pakistan collaboration.

Pakistan has helped the North Korean atomic program (centrifuge enrichment technology), and in return, North Korea has helped Pakistan in developing longer-range missiles. Similarly, there is a long history of collaboration between North Korea and Iran in nuclear and missile fields.

Some of the Iranian arms that Russia is using against Ukraine do have North Korean elements in them. But that is only one part of the story. The more significant part is that North Korea is sending its arms directly to Russia like never before.

Pyongyang is now quenching Moscow’s “shell hunger” in the battlefields of Ukraine. North Korea is providing Russia with desperately needed ammunition for artillery, mortars, tanks, rocket launchers, and Multiple Rocket Launch Systems.

Russia Putin Kim Jong Un North Korea
File Image: Russian President Putin with Kim Jong Un of North Korea

Such is the importance of North Korea for Russia today when President Putin met supremo Kim Jong-Un in September to discuss the buying of Korean arms. Kim had traveled by train to a spaceport in Russia’s Far East to discuss the terms of the trade.

Kim’s trip to Russia was preceded by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu‘s visit to Pyongyang in July to find out if North Korea could help his country’s acute shortage of arms and ammunition to prolong the war in Ukraine.

After all, North Korea’s stockpiles of Soviet-style weapons and munitions are compatible with the Russian army’s systems. North Korea has a vast arms industry whose products are almost entirely modeled on Soviet ones that the Russian military knows well.

Reportedly, North Korea could provide drones and missiles such as the KN-23, which is almost a replica of the Russian Iskander ballistic missile, self-propelled howitzers, and multi-launch rocket systems. American experts strongly believe that North Korea has been already delivering 152mm (about 5.98 in) shells and Katyusha-type rockets to Russia for the best part of a year.

What does North Korea gain in return?

First and foremost, North Korea’s geopolitical heft rises for sharing the worldview of Russia, still a superpower in many a sense, with a formidable, arguably the largest, nuclear arsenal and a highly developed scientific-industrial base.  

Second, North Korea receives Russian wheat, gas, and oil, commodities the country virtually starves of most of the time.

Third, the most apparent economic benefits North Korea reaps from significant weapons– exports are sustaining the arms industry workers, who create the maximum wealth for the country and, in the process, boost North Korea’s missile prowess. In any case, a massive and sudden expansion in weapons industry activity does make a modest contribution to economic growth and consumption.

Fourth, if reports are to be believed, North Korea is receiving Russian blueprints and process charts for nuclear-related application technologies as payment for weapon sales. This boosts the quality of Pyongyang’s nuclear mission.

Viewed thus, North Korea’s “stars” are now shining, indeed!

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: