The DPRK-Hamas Relationship

On January 8, 2024, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Korea verified that Hamas has been using weapons from North Korea in its conflict with Israel in Gaza. The NIS released a photo of a North Korean F-7 rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) with Korean letters inscribed on it. Separately, the Israel Defense Forces said that they have discovered multiple North Korean weapons, including anti-tank RPGs, in Gaza and Israel following the October 7 Hamas attack. North Korean state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) strongly denies allegations that North Korea is arming Hamas in the current war in Gaza, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Q1: What is the history of the DPRK-Hamas relationship?

A1: North Korea has a long history of relations with Hamas. Their relationship goes back to the 1960s when North Korea first started to provide financial assistance and training to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This was followed by two separate high-profile visits by the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, and the leader of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to Pyongyang to meet Kim Il Sung in the 1970s and 1980s. Both trips resulted in the steady stream of North Korean weapons and other assistance to the Palestinians. Although North Korea’s engagement with Palestine waned after the Cold War, engagement resumed in 2007 after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. In July 2014, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge military operation in Gaza, Hamas sought military assistance from North Korea. In a secret deal, Hamas received rockets and military-use communications equipment from North Korea in exchange for a down payment. Aside from weapon transfers, financial assistance, and training, it is speculated that North Korea also assisted Hamas with the construction of the Gaza metro—a network of tunnels controlled by Hamas for military purposes, logistics, storage, and transportation. 

North Korea recognizes Palestinian sovereignty over the entire Israeli territory and has no diplomatic relations with Israel. In line with this policy, North Korea has a long record of supporting Palestine by strongly condemning Israeli military action in the region—the DPRK Foreign Ministry condemned Israeli military action in 2008,2015, and 2021 as “crimes against humanity” during flare-ups between Israel and Hamas. North Korea’s support for Palestine is also evident in multilateral institutions like the United Nations as North Korea has consistently voted for Palestine’s right to self-determination since 2015.

Q2: Why is North Korea supplying weapons to Hamas?

A2: Despite North Korea’s years of support given to Palestinians, money appears to be the primary motivation. Under heavy international sanctions, North Korea has been engaged in various illicit activities to generate revenues to fund its weapons program, including arms sales to Hamas, Iran, and other Islamic militant groups. The October 7 Hamas attack is the latest evidence of the country’s illicit arms trade having a profound impact on peace and stability in the Middle East.

North Korea is also emboldened by the emergence of an anti-U.S. bloc that includes Russia, China, and Iran. After Russia invaded Ukraine, for instance, North Korea sought strategic gains in expanding cooperation with Russia to extract what it needs from Moscow while complicating U.S. efforts in Ukraine. Likewise, North Korea might seek opportunities to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East while profiting from the war in the region. This raised the prospect that North Korea could expand arms sales to Hamas following Kim Jong Un’s reported order to support the Palestinians last November.

Q3: Does military cooperation between North Korea and Hamas matter to the United States?

A3: Yes. Although their relationship is not akin to the strategic military alignment between North Korea and Russia, the growing illicit arms trade between North Korea and Hamas is a U.S. national security concern and a global non-proliferation issue. After the onset of war in Ukraine and Gaza, North Korea is supporting and prolonging these regional conflicts, boosted by an insatiable demand for ammunition, arms, and missiles. The DPRK is already the major provider of over 3 million rounds of ammunition and several dozen ballistic missiles to Russia for the war in Ukraine, in exchange for untold amounts of food, fuel, cash, and military technology. In addition to its other illicit activities, arms sales will help Kim Jong-un generate revenues to fund North Korea’s growing missile, space, cyber, and nuclear weapons programs.

Q4: Are there good policy responses for the United States and South Korea?

A4: The United States and South Korea could do more to collaborate bilaterally and multilaterally in the context of G7, the Quad, or the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum to cut the flow of money back to the regime, apply greater scrutiny on North Korean weapons that contribute to violence and crime around the world. One immediate action that the United States and South Korea could take is to advocate for the condemnation of North Korea’s role in Gaza and Ukraine in the upcoming G7 summit in June. The Proliferation Security Initiative is another opportunity for the United States and South Korea to persuade its partners to target and interdict North Korean arms shipments headed towards conflict areas. The two countries could also put forth an effort to implicate North Korea’s illicit actions in the crimes of Hamas at the International Criminal Court. Lastly, the United States and South Korea could take advantage of Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the growing ties between the DPRK and Russia to negotiate a deal that addresses the DPRK’s illicit weapons trade. Regardless of which policy response the two allies pursue, it is crucial to address North Korea’s arm sales whether to Hamas or Russia in a holistic manner as addressing solely one flow of weapons trade is not sufficient in ensuring peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and around the world.

Salamata Bah is an intern with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at CSIS.

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Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair

Salamata Bah

Research Intern, Korea Chair