North Korean military proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling violence and instability
by Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr
University Press of Kentucky, 2018, 224 pp., US$79.29
At the end of February, US President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet in Vietnam with his North Korean counterpart, the dictator Kim Jong Un, in another attempt by the US Administration to promote denuclearisation of the rogue state.
Yet a recently published book by Bruce E. Bechtol, a professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas, sheds light on another dangerous aspect of the regime in Pyongyang which urgently needs to be addressed. North Korea is the world’s go-to proliferator of sophisticated and unconventional weapons and technology to some of the worst actors on earth.
Despite his background as a former intelligence officer, Bechtol’s book, titled North Korean military proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling violence and instability, rarely introduces information not previously published. Instead, the main contribution of the book – the first of its kind – is in its synthesising role.
Navigating through the details, the reader experiences a cathartic feeling of dots connected to create a clear picture of systematic and aggressive North Korean sales of everything to anyone. Be it conventional weapons to terrorists or dangerous and internationally forbidden technologies to rogue regimes, someone in Pyongyang would supply the goods and services for the right price, while bypassing any legal prohibitions along the way.
Ideologically, North Korea feels more at ease selling such goods to anti-Western elements, counter-balancing what North Koreans see as the American threat at their doorstep. Yet the bottom line was, and is, the greenback. Facing international sanctions for decades, the one-family regime’s economy is almost exclusively dependent on a huge illicit international network of financial, criminal and fraudulent activities. Using front companies, corrupt individuals, diplomats, fake banks and private accounts around the world, the North Koreans have circumvented sanctions to create a growing income from counterfeiting currencies and cigarettes, drug cultivation and sales (such as opium and ice), illegal mineral exports (such as gold) and the highly profitable sanctioned arms proliferation.
The book begins with an in-depth review of the consistent and linear growth of North Korea as one of the world’s leading nations in the production of advanced weaponry, conventional and non-conventional. Bechtol unfolds the story of North Korea’s successful strategic nuclear and various missile programs, which dramatically accelerated in recent years under young Kim Jong Un.
Bechtol dedicates the crux of his book to the proliferation of arms, knowledge and technology from North Korea to its main clients in the Middle East and Africa. He explains, that North Korean military proliferation “essentially involves four efforts: 1) WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] and the platforms to carry it (ballistic missiles), 2) conventional weapons sales, 3) refurbishment of Soviet era weapons for countries that still use them, and 4) technical and military assistance and advising.”
Very early, it becomes obvious that Iran is the key partner for North Korea’s forbidden actions. Teheran is a wealthy arms shopper with high ambitions for the deadliest weapons and under international sanctions – the perfect client from Pyongyang’s point of view. North Korea was there from day one after the Islamic revolution in 1979 and, until today, close bilateral cooperation exists between the two states. As Bechtol sums up the weapons-based “romance” between Iran and North Korea, Iran is “the largest buyer of North Korea’s ballistic missile programs” and “If you see it in North Korea today, you will see it in Iran tomorrow.”
Yet, Iran is no regular client, because, similarly to North Korea itself, it is actively engaged in arming and training the enemies of its enemies – most notably the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to add more aggressive cards to its deck. This is why – as Bechtol reminds us – Iran financed the illegal Syrian plutonium reactor at Al Kibar, built with full North Korean support and knowhow, which was actually a copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. Teheran invested as much as US$2 billion for that purpose. After the reactor was destroyed by Israel in 2007, Iran benefited by keeping 45 tons of yellowcake (uranium concentrate powder) supplied by North Korea for the Syrian facility.
Finally, Iran finances North Korean weapons shipments to its Lebanese subsidiary, the terrorist organisation Hezbollah. This includes the supply of rockets such as Grad, Katyusha and the M600 system (joint Iranian-North Korean development) with 300 km range, along with the antitank Kornet missiles. Ballistic Scud missiles produced in Syria based on North Korean knowledge were later delivered to Hezbollah, as well as possible shipment of chemical warheads to be fitted on these missiles or on the 122-milimetre multiple rocket launchers (MRL).
When dealing with Pyongyang’s second biggest Middle Eastern client, Syria, Bechtol explains that “North Korea has been a constant source of both training and weapons for the Syrian military for many years, and this has increased in focus and tempo since the Syrian civil war began”. Damascus purchased chemical weapons, Scud missiles, as well as, of course, the nuclear reactor. Tanks, rifles, artillery, MRLs, antitank weapons, air defence kits, ammunitions, bombs and much more are also on Bashar al-Assad’s shopping list from North Korea. Pyongyang has military consultants stationed in Syria to direct the local forces, as well as Hezbollah, on how to use their deadly “toys”.
Many of these weapons were used against civilians in the Syrian war. Specifically, it was the North Korean 122-millimetre MRL armed with chemical weapons which was used by the Syrian army to conduct crimes against humanity by firing them towards rebel positions and civilian populations.
The fact that Egypt continues to use (as of 2017) North Korean companies as a supplier for its ballistic Scud missiles is surprising. Under Abdul Fateh al-Sisi, Cairo is a close ally of the US and Israel and has taken a strong position against Iran. It enjoys a hefty military aid package from the US, making it the second largest non-NATO recipient of such US aid after Israel. Yet, the Egyptian army continues buying arms from North Korea. A shipment of rocket propelled grenades seized in the Suez Canal on its way to Cairo led to a delay of American aid to Egypt.
Other countries of interest in Africa briefly reviewed by Bechtol are Omar Bashir’s rogue state of Sudan, which ‘enjoys’ substantial conventional weapons shipments from North Korea, and war-torn countries such as Ethiopia and Congo.
Bechtol’s voluminous work leads to several important conclusions. One, North Korea is a very significant threat to international security, order and stability. It now possesses atomic warheads that can be mounted on long range missiles able to hit all its Asian neighbours and maybe even western American territories.
On top of this, there is the rapid and impressive speed with which North Korea in recent years has developed a wide variety of sophisticated weapons systems on land, air (drones) and sea (submarines), and even in space (nuclear electromagnetic pulse satellites). North Korean operatives are engaged in a vast campaign of purchasing, stealing and illegally trading any relevant item or information from anyone, including Russian scientists, the Chinese, European countries and possibly even the US. Finally, North Korean cyber-warfare capabilities are increasing on a daily basis and know no geographical borders.
The second conclusion is that, so far, every policy taken vis-à-vis North Korea has failed to defuse the threat. Ignoring the problem (the “strategic patience” policy during the Obama years), engagement (Clinton and Bush Administrations) and aggressively trying to intimidate Pyongyang (Trump in his early days in office) – all resulted in an emboldened, nuclear-armed North Korea. In Bechtol’s words, “no mix of coercion or engagement has ever worked.”
Meanwhile, as everyone was focused on the nuclear and missile threats, “proliferation essentially fell by the wayside”. Steps taken to face this activity are mostly responsive, late, limited and partial. Kim Jong Un has made a complete mockery of UN-imposed – but never consistently enforced – sanctions on North Korea, Iran, Syria and others.
It’s important to carry the insights from this book to other arenas, especially the Iranian one. Bechtol lashes out at policymakers, saying that “believing that North Korea would actually live up to its obligations when it came to verification (despite evidence to the contrary) was perhaps its [the policy’s] biggest mistake (among many)”. The same reasoning should apply when addressing Iran: international monitoring of this threat alone is not enough; agreements with it must include missile and proliferation activities, as well as nuclear weapons work; and trust must not be extended as the basis for engagement with the Ayatollahs.
Dr. Ran Porat is researcher and lecturer at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University and a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, Israel.