On July 29, 2015, a South Korean intelligence official announced that Yemeni rebels had purchased 20 Scud missiles from North Korea. These missiles were subsequently fired into Saudi Arabia, in response to Saudi aggression in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia initially believed that the missiles came from Iran, a former North Korean security official confirmed South Korean intelligence claims in an interview with the Seoul-based news agency Yonhap.
North Korea’s history of missile shipments to the Middle East is well known, with Iran, Syria and Palestine among its clients. Nevertheless, the longevity and relative consistency of the DPRK’s relationship with Yemen is striking. The Yemen-North Korea partnership is based on a combination of the DPRK’s desperate need for foreign capital and Yemen’s insatiable thirst for arms to combat instability at home.
In addition to these factors, North Korea’s recent wave of Scud missile shipments to Yemen is being triggered by Saudi Arabia’s enhanced security cooperation with South Korea. The Saudi-South Korean relationship premised on shared anti-nuclear proliferation efforts appears secure, but the diplomatic balance could change profoundly if Saudi Arabia attempts to become a nuclear power in its own right.
A Special Relationship
The Yemen-North Korea alliance was born out of South Yemen’s history of communist rule. South Yemen refused to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea until the former reunified with North Yemen in 1990. North Korea also backed South Yemen’s secession attempt in the 1994 civil war. According to a North Korean security expert who defected, the DPRK sold missiles to Yemen during the 1990s and even sent missile engineers to help strengthen Yemen’s defensive capacity.
While North Korea historically backed South Yemeni forces, North Korea attempted to thaw its relationship with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s North Yemen-dominated regime during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though the Clinton administration supported Saleh’s Yemeni unity efforts in 1994, Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War deeply strained relations with the United States. North Korea sought to capitalize on this mutual discontent. Yemen was a viable market for North Korean arms at a time when the DPRK’s economy was ravaged by famine and the aftershocks of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The DPRK-Yemen marriage of common hostility became increasingly untenable after the Bush administration re-engaged Yemen on counter-terrorism efforts following the 9/11 attacks. When Spain intercepted a ship carrying North Korean Scud missiles to Yemen in 2002, Yemen announced that it would suspend all military links with the DPRK and justified its acceptance of North Korean weapons on the grounds that it was fulfilling preexisting contracts.
North Korea’s military support for Houthi rebels in Yemen is the latest manifestation of its support for anti-American forces. The Houthis overthrew the U.S. backed government in Yemen and have received significant support from Iran.
The DPRK and Saudi Arabia have had a historically tense relationship, given Saudi Arabia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and staunch anti-communist stance during the Cold War. While Saudi Arabia and North Korea collaborated in assisting South Yemeni separatists in the 1994 civil war, Saudi support for South Yemen was solely premised on its fear that a united, stable Yemen would upset the balance of power in the Gulf. As Saudi Arabia has not recognized North Korea’s right to exist, it is unsurprising that the DPRK will seek to undercut Saudi security interests by supporting the Yemeni rebels.
Saudi-South Korean Security Cooperation
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia signed a deal with South Korea to build two smaller nuclear reactors. This move grabbed the attention of the White House, as it symbolized Saudi dissatisfaction with U.S. attempts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran. The fact that the deal coincided with North Korea’s missile shipments to Yemen and North Korea’s defiant rejection of Iran-style nuclear talks with the U.S. is therefore intriguing. Pyongyang’s extension of assistance to Yemen could be its way of retaliating against Saudi nuclear cooperation with South Korea, which will probably increase should the U.S. Congress ratify the Iran deal.
It is important to emphasize that tensions between Saudi Arabia and North Korea on the nuclear issue will hold only as long as the Saudis are seeking to contain the Iranian nuclear program by upholding non-proliferation principles. The nuclear issue could actually be a potential source of cooperation between North Korea and Saudi Arabia, should Saudi frustration with the U.S. over the Iran deal reach the point that the kingdom decides to purchase nuclear weapons for itself.
Zachary Keck outlined this scenario in a recent article for the National Interest. Keck contends that North Korea is avidly seeking out foreign capital, as evidenced by Kim Jong-Un’s massive expansion of the DPRK’s policy of sending North Korean guest workers abroad. Saudi Arabia’s energy wealth would make it an ideal patron for North Korea. Also, the Saudis do not regard the North Korean nuclear program as a threat to their own security. Therefore, they could purchase nuclear weapons from the DPRK instead of from Pakistan should Iran breach the terms of the nuclear deal.
The changing nature of the North Korea-Yemen relationship adds an additional dimension to Keck’s scenario. North Korea’s alliance with Yemen is much weaker than it was during the Cold War, as common ideological bonds have evaporated. North Korea’s ability to impact the Yemen conflict is also more limited than in past wars as it is shipping relatively ineffective Cold War-era Scud missiles. Forty percent of these missiles were shot down by the Saudi military before landing on Saudi soil.
North Korea’s ability to expand its military shipments to more sophisticated forms of weaponry is stymied by crippling UN sanctions against the DPRK regime. In light of these shortcomings, it is definitely possible that North Korea will back away from its unprofitable venture in Yemen if it is given an offer of patronage from Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, the prospect of North Korea and Saudi Arabia transforming their relationship from adversaries to partners is improbable but not impossible. Western policymakers should keep a much closer eye on North Korean conduct in the Gulf. Should Saudi-U.S. relations deteriorate further over Iran, and Saudi-Russia ties strengthen, North Korea could be the unlikeliest benefactor from its spot at the center of a truly monumental geopolitical shift.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford in Russian and East European Studies. He is also a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Politics and World Post verticals, and recently to the Kyiv Post.