3D View: North Korean and Iranian Missile Collaboration?

3D View: North Korean and Iranian Missile Collaboration?

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Melissa Hanham

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Jeffrey Lewis

Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

David Schmerler

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

North Korea and Iran have been suspected of collaborating on missile development for decades. New tools and open source data allow analysts to closely compare the Nodong-X and Ghadr-1 for design similarities.

The fast and easy dissemination of photos and videos is changing the way we look at missile development programs. State media entities in Iran and North Korea proudly share propaganda images via social media. Where the intelligence community (IC) used to have a monopoly on source material and analysis, the rise of quick, easy, and cheap data transmission means new information can be gleaned from a simple photograph.

In 1995, Defense Intelligence Agency analysts may have used classified satellite images, telephone intercepts, and double agents to produce diagrams like the one below.

North Korean Missiles Size and Range [1] - 3D View: North Korean and Iranian Missile Collaboration?
North Korean Missiles Size and Range [1]

Today, even those outside the IC can produce 3D models almost as soon as Iranian or North Korean images are shared. This model of North Korea’s Nodong missile was constructed from still and video images using free Trimble SketchUp and Google Earth.

See NTI's collection of 3D Missile Models

The Nodong is a liquid-fueled single stage medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) with an estimated range of over 1,000km. [2] North Korean scientists most likely started developing it in 1988 as a continuation of its program to reverse-engineer Scuds which they received from Egypt in the 1970s. [3] Its payload can carry nuclear, chemical, biological munitions, or high explosives.

North Korea exported complete missile systems to countries such as Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. [4] While exports were primarily reverse-engineered Scuds, the Nodong missile was exported to both Iran and Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan produced copies which are almost identical externally, known as the Shahab-3 and Ghauri respectively. [5]

Nodong, Shahab-3, and Ghauri missiles modeled in SketchUp - 3D View: North Korean and Iranian Missile Collaboration?
Nodong, Shahab-3, and Ghauri missiles modeled in SketchUp

While Pakistan's Ministry of Defence made almost no changes to the exterior of the Nodong when it produced the Ghauri-I, Iranian scientists experimented with different nosecones on the Shahab-3. The triconic shape may be an attempt to lower the overall weight of the missile.

Missile Table - 3D View: North Korean and Iranian Missile Collaboration?

In addition to few design modifications, there is no evidence in the open source to suggest that Pakistan continued to purchase complete missile systems after 1996. Iran's design program stands out in the number of changes made to the original Nodong. In fact, Iran became so capable at its own design and production, that it may now be outpacing North Korea. After showing off the triconic nosecones on both the Shahab-3 and the Ghadr variations, North Korea unveiled a triconic nosecone on its Nodong-X in October 2010.

Iran continued to experiment with the triconic nosecone, and made additional changes as it stretched the original design to its limit to produce the Ghadr missiles. Of greatest interest, are the variations in the nosecone, cable raceways, and stabilizers. The nosecone, which houses the warhead, was whittled away, leaving room for only a miniaturized warhead and possibly guidance equipment. Some images of Ghadrs show perforations around the area where separation would occur, which is not visible on the Nodong-X. The Ghadr missiles also vary in where the cable raceways attach to the nosecone. Last, the Ghadr has much smaller stabilizers than the Nodong. The overall effect is a reduction in weight.

In an October 2010 parade, North Korea showed off a new version of the Nodong known as the Nodong-X to outside analysts. It sported a triconic nosecone like Iran's, but retained the larger stabilizers.

It is clear that Iran and Pakistan used North Korean Nodongs for their missile programs. Still more interesting, is the ongoing relationship between Iran and North Korea. Open source images and videos depicting similar design and evolution of the programs coupled with the exchange of rocket scientists and military officials in each other's countries is evidence of a relationship based on mutual consultation. 

[1] Defense Intelligence Agency, "North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength—Update 1995," Information Cutoff Date 31 December 1995, via
[2] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr, "A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 1999,
[3] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr, "A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 1999,
[4] Joshua Pollack, "Ballistic Trajectory," The Nonproliferation Review, 21 June 2011, 18:2, 411-429,
[5] National Air Intelligence Center, "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat," September 2000, via:
[6] Joshua Pollack, "Ballistic Trajectory," The Nonproliferation Review, 21 June 2011, 18:2, 411-429,
[7] A collection of open source images exists at:

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Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
Scud is the designation for a series of short-range ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and transferred to many other countries. Most theater ballistic missiles developed and deployed in countries of proliferation concern, for example Iran and North Korea, are based on the Scud design.
Nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon: A device that releases nuclear energy in an explosive manner as the result of nuclear chain reactions involving fission, or fission and fusion, of atomic nuclei. Such weapons are also sometimes referred to as atomic bombs (a fission-based weapon); or boosted fission weapons (a fission-based weapon deriving a slightly higher yield from a small fusion reaction); or hydrogen bombs/thermonuclear weapons (a weapon deriving a significant portion of its energy from fusion reactions).
Chemical Weapon (CW)
The CW: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines a chemical weapon as any of the following: 1) a toxic chemical or its precursors; 2) a munition specifically designed to deliver a toxic chemical; or 3) any equipment specifically designed for use with toxic chemicals or munitions. Toxic chemical agents are gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical substances that use their toxic properties to cause death or severe harm to humans, animals, and/or plants. Chemical weapons include blister, nerve, choking, and blood agents, as well as non-lethal incapacitating agents and riot-control agents. Historically, chemical weapons have been the most widely used and widely proliferated weapon of mass destruction.
Biological weapon (BW)
Biological weapons use microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants.  Biological weapons can be derived from: bacteria (anthrax, plague, tularemia); viruses (smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers); rickettsia (Q fever and epidemic typhus); biological toxins (botulinum toxin, staphylococcus enterotoxin B); and fungi (San Joaquin Valley fever, mycotoxins). These agents can be deployed as biological weapons when paired with a delivery system, such as a missile or aerosol device.


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