Since Hamas carried out its deadly terrorist attacks against Israel on October 7, there has been intense scrutiny of the Palestinian militant group’s use of North Korean military technology. On October 16, Israeli Ambassador to South Korea Akiva Tor expressed concern that Hamas had used North Korean weapons against Israel and vowed to destroy North Korean weapons stocks in the Gaza Strip. The next day, a senior official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed that “Hamas is believed to be directly or indirectly linked to North Korea in various areas, such as the weapons trade, tactical guidance and training.”
North Korea’s state Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) called allegations that it armed Hamas “a groundless and false rumor” and accused the US of fomenting this conspiracy to deflect from its own complicity in the Gaza War. Pyongyang’s insinuation that the US was behind these reports was misleading, as US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated that he could not confirm that North Korea armed Hamas.
North Korea’s denials also belied mounting contradictory evidence. Israel has reportedly captured a North Korean F-7 rocket-propelled grenade from Hamas’s arsenal. The F-7 is a shoulder-fired grenade used against armored vehicles and is another name for North Korea’s RPG-7 launcher. A South Korean official alleges that North Korean Bang-122 artillery shells were found on the Israel-Gaza border and a Hamas-aligned Palestinian militant group possesses North Korean-made 122-mm multiple rocket launchers.
North Korea’s rebuttals are further undermined by its long history of supplying arms to militant non-state actors in the Middle East. As an extension of its long-standing security partnership with Iran and Syria, North Korean military technology has reached Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. As Iran and its proxy militias threaten a multi-front war against Israel, North Korean weapons could periodically surface and inflict damage on Israeli equipment and civilians.
North Korea’s Military Links with Hamas
Since the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip, North Korean state media outlets have castigated Israel and whitewashed Hamas. On October 7, the KCNA claimed that “The Israeli military is going crazy over the oppression of the Palestinian people” and showcased Israel’s October 5 killing of two Palestinian resisters in the West Bank city of Toul Karm. On October 10, North Korea’s party daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, stated that the international community believed “Israel’s constant criminal acts against the Palestinian people” caused the war. North Korean state media omitted Hamas’s terrorist attacks from its coverage.
North Korea’s reiteration of Hamas’s narratives on the Gaza War aligns with its long-standing policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. North Korea does not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, which it has described as an “imperialist satellite state,” and recognizes Palestinian sovereignty over the entirety of Israeli territory except the disputed Golan Heights. During the 2008-2009 and 2014 Gaza Wars, North Korea described Israel’s military actions as crimes against humanity and decried Palestinian civilian deaths.
North Korea’s support for Palestinian militant groups extends beyond rhetorical solidarity. During the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat courted Kim Il Sung and received a steady stream of North Korean weapons. North Korean intelligence officers provided training to Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) commander George Habash and facilitated the PFLP-Japanese Red Army 1972 terrorist attack on Israel’s Lod Airport. North Korea’s links to Palestinian militant groups atrophied after the end of the Cold War, as the PLO pursued diplomacy with Israel and the Marxist-Leninist PFLP faded as a political force.
Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, which was followed by a succession of conflicts between Israel and Palestinian militants, ended this period of North Korean disengagement from Palestine. After Israel embarked on its July 2014 Operation Protective Edge military operation in the Gaza Strip, Hamas turned to North Korea for military assistance. In a clandestine deal, Hamas reportedly gave North Korea a six-figure down payment for rockets and military-use communications equipment. To obscure scrutiny surrounding the deal, Hamas conducted this transaction through an affiliated company in Lebanon.
Much like its current denials, North Korea called reports of a cash-for-arms deal with Hamas an “utterly baseless sophism and sheer fiction let loose by the US to isolate the DPRK internationally.” Despite this rhetoric, North Korean Bulsae-2 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have been found in the inventory of the al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, a Gaza-based militant group and one-time ally of Hamas. Palestinian militants coveted Bulsae-2s, as they lacked indigenous ATAGM manufacturing capabilities in the Gaza Strip and were portable weapons that could inflict damage on Israeli artillery. By the time of the May 2021 Gaza War, a small number of F-7 rockets had reached the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas that breached Israel’s border defenses on October 7.
North Korea’s arms transfers to Hamas were likely facilitated by third parties. After accusing Hamas of using North Korean weapons, Akiva Tor declared, “It could be that these North Korean weapons have been in Iran for quite a long time.” A possible transit route for North Korean equipment was from Iran to Sudan to Egypt, where arms are trafficked to Hamas through the Gaza Strip’s vast underground tunnel network. The 2009 impounding of North Korean arms caches in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Thailand, which were possibly intended for Hamas and Hezbollah, could have inspired the creation of this labyrinthine trafficking route.
North Korea’s Collaboration with Hezbollah and the Houthis
During the 1980s, Hezbollah operatives arrived in North Korea for military training. Even though North Korea’s military assistance to Hezbollah coincided with its strengthened partnership with Iran, Pyongyang’s arms shipments were primarily motivated by its desire for hard currency. North Korea’s cooperation with Hezbollah stopped in the early 1990s, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin briefly proposed financial incentives to discourage North Korea from arming Israel’s adversaries, but likely resumed after 1993.
After 2000, North Korean instructors arrived in Lebanon and trained Hezbollah on building underground bunkers to store arms, food, and medical facilities. During his 2004 meeting with North Korean officials, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked North Korea to help Hezbollah design and construct underground military installations. With North Korean guidance, Hezbollah built an extensive fortified tunnel network from the area south of Lebanon’s Litani River to the Israel-Lebanon border. These tunnels helped Hezbollah store rocket launchers underground and evade Israeli aerial surveillance.
North Korea also allegedly transferred improvised Katyusha and Grad rockets to Hezbollah. These weapons and spare parts arrived in Iran, where they were assembled and shipped through Syria to Lebanon. North Korea aided Iran’s production of 300-km radius M600 series rockets and Syria’s reverse-engineering of Kornet anti-tank missiles. Iran and Syria transferred these weapons to Hezbollah, and these new technologies bolstered Hezbollah’s preparations for its 2006 war with Israel. These arms transfers were confirmed by a US District Court for the District of Columbia in July 2014. The court ruling deemed North Korea and Iran liable for damages as they provided “material support and assistance” to Hezbollah that enabled its 2006 rocket strikes on Israel.
Hezbollah’s security cooperation with North Korea continued after it avoided a complete defeat at Israel’s hands. Through a training agreement brokered by Iran, North Korea’s counter-espionage units and elite forces agreed to host a hundred Hezbollah operatives in 2007. North Korea possibly aided Hezbollah’s tunnel construction north of the Litani River, which was the northernmost point of Israel’s 2006 strikes, and likely provided components for Iran’s 300km radius missile transfers to Hezbollah in 2008. While there is no evidence of recent North Korean military cooperation with Hezbollah, North Korea’s on-the-ground assistance to Assad in the Syrian Civil War might have inspired cooperation.
Since the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen began in 2015, the Houthis have used or tried to procure North Korean military technology. In July 2015, South Korean intelligence officials revealed that the Houthis fired 20 North Korean-made Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia. The Houthis likely captured these Scud missiles on the battlefield, as the Yemen Armed Forces originally purchased them from North Korea in 2002.
Although these Scud missile strikes were ineffective, a Houthi leadership figure invited North Korean officials to meet in Damascus in July 2016 and discuss technology transfers. North Korea attempted to grant this request by using Syrian arms trafficker Hussein al-Ali to ship light weaponry to the Houthis. Despite reports that the Houthis modified North Korean Hwasong-6 Scuds for longer-range strikes on Saudi Arabia, United Nations Panel of Experts reports have stopped short of confirming wartime arms deliveries from North Korea to the Houthis.
While Israel’s Gaza Strip blockade might preclude further North Korean arms deliveries to Hamas, Pyongyang will closely monitor and accrue military lessons from events in the Middle East. South Korea was alarmed by Hamas’s breaches of Israel’s border defenses and is re-evaluating its own ability to thwart a similar North Korean offensive. If Israel embarks on a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and the war broadens to Lebanon, North Korea will monitor the resilience of Hamas and Hezbollah’s tunnel infrastructure. Regardless of the war’s outcome, North Korea’s cooperation with Iran and Syria will provide future opportunities for Iran-aligned militias to use its military technology.