A trajectory the world cannot afford to shrug off
North Korea’s Middle East Webs and Nuclear Wares
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North Korea’s third and latest nuclear test is certainly a threat to Asian security, but the dangers go way beyond Asia. For decades, North Korea has been one of the world’s most enterprising and unscrupulous suppliers of weapons to the Middle East. Among North Korea’s chief and most enduring clients is the world’s leading terrorist-sponsoring, nuclear-aspiring state, Iran.
A big question hanging over North Korea’s latest nuclear test, conducted Feb. 12, is whether it was also done for the benefit of Iran, or was possibly even an Iranian test, courtesy of North Korea’s facilities. One telling sign could be the nature of the fuel used in the test, though that is not yet clear. Iran’s nuclear program has focused on enriching uranium. By contrast, North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, have been plutonium based. But North Korea by its own account has also been enriching uranium, and nuclear experts have been wondering if the illicit ventures of both rogue states might converge in a uranium-based test in North Korea.
Whether plutonium or uranium, however, there are also insights to be gleaned from North Korea’s behavior during its long record in the munitions business. There is plenty of precedent to suggest that when North Korea tests a weapon, the Pyongyang regime is after more than simply enhancing its own arsenal. It is also looking to get the biggest bucks for its bang.
For years, North Korean weapons tests have effectively doubled as marketing displays, rolling out the latest round of North Korea’s lethal wares. “North Korea will sell anything to anybody,” says Bruce Bechtol, a political scientist and former senior defense intelligence analyst specializing in North Korea. Bechtol adds that Iranian officials have been present at every major North Korean missile test, as well as both previous nuclear tests.
Since the 1960s, North Korea’s sales have run the gamut, from conventional weapons, to increasingly sophisticated, longer-range missiles, to collaborating with Syria on the construction of an entire clandestine nuclear reactor with no evident purpose except to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Among North Korea’s many clients over the years have been Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, as well as Iran, and Iran’s satellite Lebanese terrorist organization, Hezbollah.
In this trade, North Korea has created a niche for itself as a full service back shop for rogue states, offering an unblinking willingness to violate any and all international norms in exchange for cash, oil and yet more weapons technology. Not only does North Korea’s regime supply its clients with weapons; it also has a history of providing weapons experts, military training, procurement and smuggling services, money-laundering facilities and in some cases, help with weapons production.
The web of these dealings is vast, but perhaps a few specifics will give the idea. In the case of Iran, North Korea’s dealings go back to the early years of the Islamic Republic, in the 1980s. At that stage, North Korea had reverse-engineered Soviet Scud B short-range ballistic missiles, which North Korea supplied along with submarines and guns to Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. This business partnership flourished. Reports emerged that in 1993 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been present in North Korea for the first successful test of a Nodong-1 medium range missile. In 2003, a high-ranking North Korean defector, a missile scientist, testified to Congress about an official trip he made to Iran in 1989. The mission was to fire a North Korean missile for the Iranians, and then come home to make more.
North Korea continued selling missiles to any customer willing to pay — including Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya and Syria. According to the 2004 report of the Iraq Survey Group, better known as the Duelfer Report, Saddam Hussein’s regime, shortly before Saddam’s 2003 overthrow, had been negotiating deals with North Korea — brokered through Syria — for missile components, ammunition manufacturing equipment and engineers.
By 2009, U.S. intelligence services were reporting to Congress that Syria, already in possession of one of the largest short-range ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East, was developing longer-range missiles “with assistance from North Korea and Iran.”
Nor have North Korea’s illicit deals stopped with missiles. More spectacular is the nuclear file. In the 1990s, North Korea joined Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, swapping missiles for nuclear technology. Through this network, North Korea then found customers for some of its other wares. According to a 2010 report by David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, it appears that in 2001, via the A.Q. Khan network, North Korea provided Qaddafi’s Libya (another of A.Q. Khan’s customers) with a compound used in uranium enrichment, uranium hexafluoride. When Qaddafi turned over his nuclear kit to the U.S. in late 2003, U.S. analysts found on the uranium hexafluoride canisters minute traces of plutonium, which they concluded had come from North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. The report adds that bank records obtained by the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that payments for the compound, routed through the A.Q. Khan network, “went to a company that is linked to North Korea, implying that North Korea sold something to Libya.”
In 2003-2004, under U.S. pressure, Pakistan rolled up A.Q. Khan’s operations. But that hardly put Pyongyang out of the nuclear proliferation racket. By then, North Korea was collaborating with Syria to build a covert nuclear reactor on the Euphrates River. According to a 2008 CIA report, not only was this a copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor, not only were North Korean officials present in Syria to assist, but after the Israelis destroyed the reactor in a 2007 air strike, North Koreans returned to the site to help the Syrians cover up the wreckage.
It also turned out that North Korea had helped Syria obtain vital equipment for this secret reactor project. In 2008, the Washington Post reported that the point man for this illicit procurement was a former North Korean ambassador to the IAEA ,Yun Ho-jin. Using a company called Namchongang Trading, with offices in Pyongyang, Damascus and China,Yun had served as a middleman, ordering goods such as high-strength aluminum tubes from Europe, in ways that cloaked the real purpose and destination. In August, 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported that not only was Yun still in business, but he and another North Korean offical, Chun Byung-ho, were running an international weapons-trading network that U.S. officials were comparing in scale and tactics to those of A.Q. Khan.
All this, and much more of similar ilk, has helped sustain North Korea’s totalitarian regime in all its rigid brutality at home, while Pyongyang’s munitions merchants have proved adept at navigating tremendous changes in the world outside. Availing itself of China’s support and access to world commerce, playing a high-wire game of nuclear extortion with the U.S. and its allies, North Korea’s Kim dynasty has survived the 1991 fall of its former Soviet patrons, weathered the retirement of A.Q. Khan and outlived such clients as Iraq’s Saddam and Libya’s Qaddafi. Indeed, the lesson Pyongyang suggested to the world after Qaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 was that he’d made a fatal mistake in giving up his nuclear program.
When current North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un inherited North Korea’s totalitarian cockpit in December, 2011 from his father, and grandfather before him, there was speculation that North Korea might learn some manners. That looks unlikely. With North Korea’s two long-range missile tests last year — a fizzle in April, a success in December — and now a nuclear test, young Kim’s regime has effectively announced to the world that North Korea will stick to its old ways. Review the record, and it is terrifyingly clear: This is a trajectory the world cannot afford to shrug off, yet again, with a United Nations condemnation, or another round of talks and appeasement. It must be stopped.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.