As the US looks on with horror at North Korea’s developing nuclear capabilities, a second risk has fallen relatively under the radar — the possibility that Pyongyang’s expanding technical prowess will make it easier for it to sell nuclear weapon components and technical know-how to other countries or armed groups.
The danger is far from hypothetical — North Korea has repeatedly been found selling both conventional arms and materials used in producing nuclear weapons to countries from Libya to Myanmar.
This year, North Korea carried out its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and claimed it could miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mount it onto a missile. A US intelligence report said it has the ability to do so, though some analysts are doubtful. That hasn’t stopped arms control experts, though, from worrying about what happens if what they do know does hit the market.
“North Korea, if you look at the big picture, has sold almost every weapons system it has ever developed,” Sheena Greitens, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri whose research focuses on China and North Korea, told BuzzFeed News. “The risk of onward proliferation to other countries and other actors has expanded as their technical capabilities have advanced.”
Aside from growing its supply of weapons by pouring money into the defense sector, North Korea has also shown prospective buyers that its arms work, Greitens said, effectively marketing them to other countries.
Arms sales have long been a significant source of revenue for cash-strapped North Korea, and years of sanctions have not dissuaded Pyongyang or its buyers, primarily located in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Historically many of the sales have been in short- and medium-range missiles, as well as other conventional arms. South Korea’s Bank of Korea reported that the country’s GDP was $28.50 billion in real terms last year, and missile sales, as well as data and information gleaned from testing missiles, have been a key source of revenue for the government according to a Congressional Research Service report.
But there have been a few cases where North Korea has also been caught attempting to sell materials and expertise related to its nuclear weapons program. In February, the country attracted attention from the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea by posting an online ad with the phone number for the sale’s point of contact linked to a junior diplomat posted at the North Korean embassy in Beijing. The metal up for sale, lithium-6, can be used in building a hydrogen bomb. Nuclear policy experts interpreted the ad as an indication that the North Korean government had more of the material than it could use.
In an earlier incident in 2007, Israel bombed a partially completed nuclear reactor in Syria. Intelligence officials later noted that Syria appeared to have received materials and technical assistance from North Korean scientists. (Syrian officials have denied the project had any links to North Korea.) And international inspectors believe Pyongyang provided Libya with two tons of uranium hexafluoride in 2001.
It’s unclear whether other, similar incidents have taken place, but remain unknown to the public.
“We are dealing with the barely visible tip of an iceberg of unknown dimensions,” said Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
In theory, round after round of increasingly stringent sanctions imposed on North Korea, particularly targeting its exports, ships, and banks, should have prevented or at least discouraged Pyongyang from continuing to engage in any arms sales, let alone materials that can be used to build nuclear bombs.
But in practice, experts say the country has managed to find a plethora of workarounds from settling trade through phony accounts at Chinese banks to disguising its ships to selling arms through foreign shell companies. And if arms sales are hard to track, it’s even more difficult to know when and how North Korean scientists and researchers pass on their knowledge to other countries and groups.
Buyers of North Korean conventional arms, which range from small arms and upgraded Soviet-era tanks to naval vessels and missiles, are looking to save money. But some also feel a kinship with North Korea because of its stance towards the West, Pollack said. Others want to diversify their sources of weapons.
Recent likely sales have included anti-tank missiles to Hamas, and a North Korean ship called the Jie Shun was caught by Egyptian officials last August on its way to the Suez Canal hiding 30,000 PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades.
What’s clear is that the North Koreans shouldn’t be underestimated in their desire and ability to supply arms and banned materials of all kinds to willing buyers.
“They are imitators and adaptors, not world class,” Pollack said. “But they are good at it. They have real scientists and engineers. They have arms factories and universities. They are not a joke.”
“That’s why the country is so poor,” he added. “They mainly care about defense and research and development, not the civilian economy — that’s what they’ve got going for them.”