Pyongyang’s Proliferation

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Kim Jong Il’s death leaves the Korean peninsula and the rest of East Asia in a period of great uncertainty. But one of Kim Jong Il’s most dangerous legacies has security implications well beyond the region: he leaves behind a thriving nuclear weapons export business that must now be stopped.

There has been mounting evidence in recent years that North Korea has set up an illicit nuclear export business to Syria, Iran and potentially elsewhere. Syria’s Al-Kibar nuclear reactor, which was bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, closely resembled a North Korean facility used to produce plutonium for bombs, and one western diplomat told me that several senior North Korean technicians were killed in the raid.

North Korea and Iran’s sharing of technology for missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads is so extensive that some analysts say it is only appropriate to view it as operationally a joint missile program. No one knows if North Korea is also helping Iran with nuclear weapons design, and it’s possible it has other, yet-to-be-detected clients as well.

North Korea shares little similarity or ideology with Syria or Iran; its dealings are largely profit-driven. For its clients, DPRK provides a black market to purchase sensitive nuclear technology without detection by the international community. The nightmare scenario is that Pyongyang would even sell fissile material—the key ingredient for nuclear bombs— to terrorists if the price is right.

Most nonproliferation experts find this scenario unlikely as it would be quickest route imaginable to have your country bombed and possible invaded. However, the Syrian and Iranian cases show that DPRK has been happy to sell the technology needed to produce fissile material, and the missiles needed to deliver it.

What’s not clear is how much this network relied on support or at least authorization from Kim Jong Il. But reports from North Korean defectors once involved in the tripartite proliferation network suggest it is highly sophisticated and involves many different layers of officialdom. It may work something like this: North Korean state trading companies working directly for the DPRK regime set up branch offices in mainland China.  These companies contract private Chinese firms to send purchase orders to the local subsidiaries of European industrial machinery companies, who have set up shop in China specifically to cash in on China’s growing domestic market.

These domestic orders, of course, are not subject to export controls, so without knowing it, western subsidiaries sell dual-use technology—industrial tool and dye equipment, for example—directly to private Chinese firms, who then use their established routes to transport the goods to North Korea. In terms of sales, North Korea state trading companies are also contracting private Chinese firms to move sensitive goods through Southeast Asia (including Myanmar) and on to clients in the Middle East.

The success of this network is an unintended consequence of China’s North Korea strategy, which has placed a high emphasis on a stable regime succession to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un. The strategy is understandable: regime collapse in North Korea would send a flood of refugees across the border into some of the poorest provinces in China. Beijing may also believe that economic reform and party-to-party institution building can help reform North Korea and bring it in from the cold. Maybe so, but in the meantime this policy has created more opportunities for North Korea to increase its illicit activity through the mainland.

Unfortunately, enlisting China’s help in cracking down on the use of private Chinese firms by North Korean entities—even now that Kim Jong Il is dead–is a lost cause for the U.S and its allies. China’s port security and trade monitoring resources are woefully unmatched by the volume of trade in China today. Even more importantly, corruption at local levels is still a major problem.

The Proliferation Security Initiative, launched in 2003 as a voluntary organization of nations cooperating to prevent the shipment of proliferation-sensitive technologies, has proven to be an increasingly effective tool for combating North Korean smuggling. It has led to the interdiction of several North Korean shipments of missile and WMD components, most recently the turning around by the U.S. Navy of a Belize-flagged North Korean Vessel in June suspected of transporting missile technology on its way to Myanmar (and then on possibly to the Middle East). In the short term, the PSI should be continued. What’s more, we should encourage PSI states—and China– to offer monetary rewards that lead to the interdiction of North Korean consignments. Mercenary traders, after all, can often be bought when they cannot be stopped.

North Korea is a backward, broken country with a dysfunctional economy. But its leaders are expert survivors and remarkably apt at getting what they need; we should not assume that this will change with Kim Jong Il’s passing. With two nuclear weapons tests already complete, North Korea has clearly learned how to construct a black market, full-service nuclear weapons program. There is growing evidence that they will now help any country that can pay to do the same.

The death of Kim Jong Il should focus the West’s attention on stopping the spread of North Korean technology. Cutting off the supply would buy us time to fight the other half of the battle. In countries and regions where the demand for nuclear weapons remains strong, we must do more to address the underlying issues that cause countries to seek nuclear weapons in the first place.

Harrell is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a Boston-based reporter for TIME.