From Unha to Shahab: Contextualizing Notions of Iranian Help with North Korea’s Missile Launch

By | January 02, 2013 | No Comments

Technical style drawing of Unha-3 via Michael Vick at Global

Technical style drawing of Unha-3 / Shahab – 6 via Michael Vick at Global

Jende Huang applies his arms control expertise toward wondering how North Korea went so quickly from “failure to achieve orbit” in April to a surprise December launch one cold morning when the rest of the world thought that technical difficulties once again reigned at the launch pad in North Pyong’an province.  Every time North Korea adds another charge to their international rap sheet, there are allegations (and usually some hard proof) that they had outside help.  Here at SinoNK, we have examined previous similar allegations by  deconstructing tropes, managing information fall out and even looked at disarming dreams. 

Unha-3 (은하 3 호/银河 3号) looks, functions and shares many characteristics of Iran’s Shahab-6.  However, all rockets battle the same challenges when trying to puncture the atmosphere and slip the surly bonds of gravity so there are always going to be certain characteristics in common.

Technological questions matter, but so too to questions of theocracy and cultural understanding.  If Iranians really are in DPRK, or DPRK scientists in Iran, what kinds of Status of Forces Agreements are there in case one side breaks a law?  How are religious issues reconciled?  How is halal food procured in North Korea? And so many more questions; enough for another article. In any event, the case of  how the North Koreans pulled off this amazing technological feat in less time than one human gestational cycle may also have indirect and intersecting pathways.   –Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

From Unha to Shahab: Contextualizing Notions of Iranian Help with North Korea’s Missile Launch

by Jende Huang

With the successful 12 December 2012 launch of the DPRK’s Unha-3 rocket—and its apparently non-transmitting satellite—into orbit, renewed focus has turned to how the DPRK was able to so quickly learn from their failed 5 April 2012 launch attempt. Many are turning to Iranian involvement as a possible explanation. In early December, Arms Control Wonk noted a Japanese media report stating that the Iranians had agreed to put four weapons experts in a military facility to assist the North Koreans. According to the news report, the DPRK and the Islamic Republic had signed Memorandums of Understanding(MOU) in September, and signed a separate agreement to place the Iranian personnel in North Korea.

The Iranian-DPRK Triumvirate | This MOU, and the notion that Iranian technicians might be stationed in the DPRK, is best interpreted as part of a much larger pattern of activity between the two countries that stretch back decades. The DPRK and Iran had established diplomatic ties in 1973, but the rise to power of the Aytollah and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) appears to have solidified the already blossoming relationship between the two nations.

The relationship between North Korea and Iran is often a triangular one.  China has played a major role since at least the Iran-Iraq War, when Beijing profited from the conflict by selling arms to third parties such as the DPRK, which would then resell said weaponry to Tehran. China, by design or not, has played a role in the connections between the DPRK and the Islamic Republic.  In 1986, China first attempted to shift blame the DPRK for sales of its HY-2 antiship cruise missiles to the Islamic Republic. Though some of the cruise missiles may have come from the DPRK, U.S. intelligence agencies were supposedly able to show that China had also been a supplier for the Islamic Republic.

In the future, it may make more sense for scholars and analysts not separately to examine Tehran’s respective relations with Pyongyang and Beijing, but instead, see the relations between the three capitals as interconnected.

examining unha

Closely examining aft end of oxidizer tank. This thing slammed into the ocean after falling from the upper edge of the stratosphere – arguably inelegant, but undeniably sturdy enough construction. AFP PHOTO / ROK DEFENCE MINISTRY

Breaking Up is Hard To Do | For those trying to counter the proliferation activities of the DPRK and the Islamic Republic, monitoring relations between the two countries is certain to be a fruitful approach. There may already be flagging support from a country that already sits on the UN Security Council? As China strives to take what it sees as its rightful place on the world stage, perhaps an understanding could be reached with Beijing. Part of the price for recognition and respect would require disengagement from Pyongyang and Tehran when it comes to some of their more unsavory activities. China cannot continue to protect the Iranians and North Koreans in the Security Council, and cannot continue to maintain a blind eye to proliferation activities that are likely occurring on Chinese territory, if it truly hopes to one day be looked upon as a responsible, global power.

Though the nuclear programs of Iran and the DPRK are a thorn in the side of the U.S., is this the manner in which China wants to continue to engage with its “strategic competitor” in the future? China has perhaps allowed inertia to guide its continued support for the DPRK and the Islamic Republic. But this status quo will not always remain, and Beijing will have to one day decide how it wants to balance its relationships with Tehran and Pyongyang, as it also tries to show the world that its rise will be a stabilizing influence in global affairs.

Oxidizer tank with four outlets.  Characteristic of Iranian - and now - DPRK 3 stage rockets. Photo via Arms Control Wonk

Aft end of oxidizer tank with four outlets – for four engines. Characteristic of the first stage of Iranian – and now – DPRK rockets with 3 stages.  Notice proximity of journalists with no protective gear. Photo via Arms Control Wonk


Lin, Christina Y. “The King from the East: DPRK-Syria-Iran Nuclear Nexus and Strategic Implications for Israel and the ROK.” KEI Academic Paper Series, October 2008.

Park, John S. “The Leap in North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Program: The Iran Factor” NBR Analysis Brief,  Dec 19, 2012.

United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “China-Iran: A Limited Partnership.” October 2012.–28.pdf


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