During the Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in January 2021, North Korea’s ruling party indicated that future military modernization plans would focus on the development of new drones for the Korean People’s Army (KPA), alongside other priority programs. The country has displayed indigenous drones during military parades in the past, and is one of many to have shown a heightened interest in such technologies after their potential effectiveness was demonstrated on Middle Eastern and Central Asian battlefields in 2020.
Aviation has been a notable shortcoming of North Korea’s defense sector for decades, and while the country’s military industries have provided almost everything for the KPA’s requirements – from ballistic missiles and communications systems to long-range air defenses and submarines – they have not produced any high-end combat aircraft except as part of license production deals using Russian-sourced components. Drones, however, are considerably cheaper and easier to produce than fighter jets or bombers and generally require much less maintenance and have much lower operational costs, meaning that although North Korea isn’t likely to acquire new manned fighters in the near future, it has considerable room to compensate by relying more heavily on unmanned aircraft. Aside from their value as strike platforms, as demonstrated in clashes in 2020 during conflicts in Idlib and Nagorno-Karabakh, drones can also serve as force multipliers to assets such as artillery and ballistic missiles by providing targeting data on enemy positions.
The asymmetric nature of drone warfare in particular is likely the key to its appeal to the KPA, as it allows a small investment in often expendable aircraft to potentially seriously threaten much larger forces and cause serious losses in manpower and materiel. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2017-18 when the Islamic State terror group used drones to great effect against Syrian and Iraqi forces, striking targets such as supply depots and bridges. At a time when the militants’ resources and funds were dwindling, this proved the only effective means of slowing down advances by the two Arab armies. More recently, the heavy losses incurred on slow, expensive Armenian armored units by Azerbaijan’s fast and relatively cheap unmanned attack aircraft showed how use of drones as an asymmetric strike asset could effectively minimize one’s own personnel losses and tip the balance on the battlefield in one’s favor.
North Korea has long favored asymmetric warfare assets, from its small and quiet submarines, which can threaten much larger warships costing tens of times more, to mobile, relatively low-cost long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, which can challenge enemy assets without needing to match their investment one-for-one in terms of performance. Indeed, the tests of the country’s KN-23 ballistic missile in 2019 were widely interpreted, based on official statements, as a response to South Korea’s deployment of more F-35 stealth fighters. Analysts highlighted the missiles’ ability to potentially strike the expensive new fighters on their runways and thus neutralize them relatively cheaply.
While the benefits to North Korea of fielding capable drones are clear, what is less obvious is how the country will acquire such technologies and narrow the gap between the relatively conservative drones it has displayed and the cutting edge of drone warfare. The country does have one potentially highly attractive path to acquiring drone technologies, however, which would be to purchase them from a country which has for decades been its leading defense client: the Islamic Republic of Iran. North Korea has provided Iran with ballistic missiles since the early 1980s, and the vast majority of Iranian missiles in service today are either of North Korean origin or integrate North Korean technologies and components. Missile sales have been accompanied by transfers of North Korean submarines, tanks, artillery systems, small arms, nuclear software, and even knowhow relating to tunneling and fortification. These sales continued despite resolutions restricting arms sales to and from both countries by the United Nations Security Council.
Although North Korea remains ahead of Iran in terms of the overall capabilities of its defense sector, drones are a notable exception and represent a field where Iran has emerged as one of the world’s leading producers. Although North Korea has looked to the Middle East in the past for drone technologies, this was to acquire foreign designs, which were sold on for reverse engineering purposes, rather than aircraft that originated in the region.
Iranian drones have been extensively combat tested primarily in Syria and Iraq, where they have flown over 1,000 strike operations and several more reconnaissance missions. Alongside more conservative non-stealth designs such as the Shahed 129 – which closely resembles and is in many ways similar to the U.S. Predator and Chinese Wing Loong II – the performance of Iran’s higher-end stealth drones has been most notable. Iran was able to use electronic warfare equipment to bring down a CIA-operated Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone over its airspace in 2011 and recover it intact, and the aircraft was used as the basis for a series of flying wing stealth drones, which Iranian sources claimed surpassed the U.S. original. The RQ-170 may well have been the stealthiest military aircraft in the world at the time, entering service after the F-22 Raptor fighter and using a similar flying wing configuration to the B-2 Spirit bomber, and the performance of Iranian derivatives of the design surprised many analysts with their sophistication. This led to widespread speculation that the country had received foreign assistance in reverse engineering the design.
Two earlier Iranian stealth drone classes based on the RQ-170 included the Saegheh reconnaissance platform and the Shahed 171 attack platform. An Iranian radar-evading surveillance drone thought to be the Saegheh carried out reconnaissance operations inside Israeli airspace in February 2018, and proved highly survivable, evading multiple attempts by Israel’s U.S.-made Patriot missile batteries to neutralize it from the ground. The aircraft was eventually brought down by gunfire at close range – where its stealth capabilities did not provide any protection. Former head of Mossad Danny Yatom stated regarding the incident: “It was a sophisticated operation. The UAV was almost an exact replica of the U.S. drone that fell in their territory. If it had exploded somewhere in Israel, it may not have been possible to identify it as an Iranian manufactured drone.”
Iran subsequently introduced more advanced stealth drones into service, including the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191, both of which were capable of using precision-guided weapons, in addition to being able to carry out long-range operations. Other than the United States and China, no other country is known to have developed similarly capable drones domestically, with Iran remaining the only country known to have combat tested flying wing stealth drones for strike operations.
Should North Korea acquire stealth drones similar to those in Iran, most likely through technology transfers rather than “off the shelf” purchases, it would be a potentially major game changer for its armed forces and complement assets such as new ballistic missiles and rocket artillery systems to seriously challenge U.S. and South Korean forces on the battlefield. Drones with comparable ranges to those fielded by Iran would also allow North Korean forces to threaten U.S. targets across much of Japan. The drones would likely play a much more significant role than North Korea’s aging fleet of manned aircraft in a potential conflict, and their radar-evading capabilities could allow them to operate offensively despite enemy air superiority.
North Korea would likely have an interest not only in Iranian strike drones such as the Shahed 191, but also in reconnaissance aircraft, which could provide targeting data to increase the effectiveness of the KPA’s massive artillery and rocket artillery forces. North Korea will likely be able to afford to field such drones in considerable numbers, and the possibility remains that the cost could be partially offset by the transfer of North Korean technologies to the Iranian defense sector. Iran, for its part, has shown a willingness to export high end armaments, including drones, and as one of the few countries with a well-established defense sector that is willing to trade in arms with North Korea despite U.N. embargoes, it is likely to be a willing supplier.
The course North Korea’s drone program will take ultimately remains to be seen, but considering how close defense ties with Iran have been over the past four decades, and the demonstrated advanced capabilities of Iranian drones, it would be unusual for North Korea not to at least seriously consider this clear path to improving its drone forces through mutually beneficial cooperation.
A. B. Abrams is the author of “Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power” and “Power and Primacy: A History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific.” He has published widely on defense and politics and has completed Master’s degrees in related subjects at the University of London. Abrams has spent much time in North Korea and studied the Korean language at university in Pyongyang.