North Korea, global arms bazaar

North Korean soldiers parade with the portrait of Kim Il Sung, the country's founding president, in Pyongyang to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party in this October 2005 photo.
North Korean soldiers parade with the portrait of Kim Il Sung, the country's founding president, in Pyongyang to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party in this October 2005 photo. Ji Xinlong / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea’s claimed test of a nuclear weapon is only the tip of what frightens the rest of the world. It’s all the more worrisome because the country has shown itself to be a virtual bazaar for spreading missiles, conventional weapons and nuclear technology around the globe.

According to U.S. officials and outside experts, Pyongyang has sold its military goods to at least 18 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. That’s a good indication, officials warn, that North Korea might sell nuclear weapons if doing so would bring hard currency into the isolated, impoverished communist state.

North Korea’s catalog has included ballistic missiles and related components, conventional weapons such as mobile rocket launchers, and nuclear technology. It’s also possible, the officials say, that the unstable government in Pyongyang has sold components that could be part of biological or chemical munitions.

The officials and others interviewed this week about North Korea’s weapons trade spoke on the condition that they not be identified given the tense situation between the two countries.

On Thursday, the United States circulated a second draft resolution at the United Nations that condemns North Korea’s proclaimed nuclear test on Monday.

The resolution calls for a ban on all North Korean arms sales and travel by people involved in North Korea’s weapons program. It also requires countries to freeze all assets related to North Korea’s weapons and missile programs.

In admonishing North Korea’s purported nuclear test, President Bush this week accused Pyongyang of being “one of the world’s leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria.”

North Korea’s customer list, going back to the mid-1980s, goes well beyond those two countries. U.S. officials, recent public assessments and outside experts report sales of missiles or related components to Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Pyongyang is also believed to have engaged in conventional arms deals for cruise missiles and other wares with most of those countries and 11 others: Angola, Burma, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Vietnam, Zaire and Zimbabwe.

Sharing nuclear technology
North Korea is also believed to have shared its nuclear technology. Government officials have said publicly that A.Q. Khan — the Pakistani scientist who confessed in 2004 to running an illegal nuclear market — had close connections with North Korea, trading in equipment, facilitating international deals for components and swapping nuclear know-how.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a retired Air Force officer who chairs the House intelligence subcommittee on technical intelligence, said the U.S. is not aware that North Korea has sold highly enriched uranium or plutonium to another nation, nor are authorities aware of any North Korean weapons sales to terrorist groups. Her assessment was confirmed by other government officials.

Wilson said she recently asked a government expert on North Korea what would stop North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il from selling weapons to terrorists. That expert’s response: “The North Koreans would sell their mother for enough money.”

Sales to unstable countries
Also of concern, North Korea sells its weaponry to unstable or undemocratic states that may not have adequate control over their arsenals. That includes Iran and Syria, noted Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House intelligence policy subcommittee that recently issued a Republican-drafted report on the North Korean threat.

In another case, “Yemen is trying to help (the United States) and they have made some public efforts — at least in p.r. efforts — when it comes to helping us on terrorism,” Rogers said. “But Yemen has a troubled history.”

Rogers’ report, which was reviewed by the U.S. intelligence community, says that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion, “at least partially amassed through drug and missile sales and counterfeiting.”

The United States leads the world in arms sales to developing nations. While North Korea is believed to make hundreds of millions of dollars annually from weapons sales, those revenues may be shrinking, in part because of international pressure to avoid the unpredictable government.

Some customers also aren’t in the market any longer. Libya, for instance, announced in 2004 that it would end its programs in long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, another former customer, ended its purchases with Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.

$1 billion in conventional sales
An August 2005 report from the Congressional Research Service said North Korea secured $1 billion from 1997 to 2000 in one area of arms deals: conventional sales with developing nations.

That made North Korea the 11th largest supplier to developing nations. But from 2001 to 2004, North Korea didn’t make the top list of leading suppliers.

Still, it continues to seek out new business. Some government officials suspect North Korea attempted to sell missile technology to Nigeria and may have recently tried to sell missiles to Burma, controlled by an isolated military junta.

Concerns about North Korea’s weapons market were crystallized in recent public incidents.

In late 2002, a ship carrying Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen was intercepted by Spanish commandos and turned over to the United States. An ally in the war on terror, Yemen protested, saying it rightly purchased the weapons and it wouldn’t sell them to anyone else. The freighter was released.

By 2003, U.S. intelligence had penetrated Khan’s market and learned more about his dealings with North Korea. The following February, then-CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress that North Korea had shown a willingness “to sell complete systems and components” for missile programs that have allowed other governments to acquire longer-range missiles.