As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un prepare for the first ever summit between the heads of their respective countries, it appears that, at least for now, the brinkmanship and threats we have seen in the recent past are at an end. Regardless of the fate of the summit, however, the United States and its allies will be forced to deal with North Korea’s weapons programs, which now threaten not only U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan but potentially the continental United States itself. 

International attention in recent years has understandably centered on Pyongyang’s advances in nuclear weapons technology and the question of whether North Korea can be convinced to denuclearize. This focus, however, has tended to obscure the fact that North Korea’s military development serves two purposes. The first is the ability to intimidate and threaten both its neighbors in the region and the United States. The second, less well-known purpose is to proliferate weapons—conventional, unconventional, and weapons of mass destruction—to desperate and unstable regions around the world in exchange for hard currency.

For decades, North Korea has proliferated weapons, including conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and chemical agents, to states such as Iran and Syria (and by extension to their nonstate proxies), helping them to evade international sanctions  and providing them with the necessary technical and military assistance to develop their own weapons programs.


Perhaps the most visible instance of North Korean proliferation can be seen in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, largely financed by his patrons in Tehran, has purchased and deployed North Korean weapons against his own people throughout the course of the country’s seven-year civil war.

North Korean–Syrian military relations go back to the 1960s, when both countries were part of the Soviet sphere of influence. North Korean pilots assisted the Syrian air force against Israel in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and during the First Lebanon War in 1982, North Korean special forces trained Syrian troops in guerrilla warfare. Throughout this relationship, Pyongyang has been a major supplier of conventional weapons to Damascus, including artillery, guns, tanks, and systems such as multiple-rocket launchers that have been used to deliver chemical weapons.

For decades, North Korea has proliferated weapons to rogue states such as Iran and Syria.

Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has also been proliferating ballistic missiles to Syria. During the mid- to late 1990s, Pyongyang allegedly sold several hundred Scud-C missiles and missile production kits to Damascus. Beginning in the early years of the same decade, the North Koreans, in a pattern that continues to this day, contracted to build missile fabrication facilities for the Syrians. Instead of shipping whole missiles to Syria, that is, they would ship the parts—making it easier to evade sanctions—which would then be assembled in Syria with assistance from North Korean technicians. North Korea has also used this strategy to assist the Syrians in building and testing an advanced Scud-D.

North Korea has been deeply involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program as well. In 2004, several Syrian technicians were killed in a train explosion in Ryongchon, North Korea. The Syrians, employees of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (the agency in charge of many of Syria’s covert weapons of mass destruction programs), were accompanying a shipment of missiles and missile components to the North Korean port of Nampo, from which they would be sent to Syria. And since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, cooperation between Damascus and Pyongyang has increased. According to reports from 2013, North Korea, Syria, and Iran have collaborated in the “planning, establishment, and management” of at least five Syrian facilities that manufacture precursors of chemical weapons. A UN Panel of Experts report from earlier this year revealed, among other things, that a North Korean technical delegation transferred thermometers and resistance valves for use in chemical weapons during an August 2016 visit to Syria; that North Korean ballistic missile technicians traveled to Syria in April and November 2016; and that North Korean missile and chemical technicians continue to work at facilities in Adra, Barzeh, and Hama.

North Korea has used a variety of tricks to make these sales in the face of international sanctions. Pyongyang has used sealed diplomatic shipments, which are normally not inspected, and foreign front companies to avoid interdiction. The Panel of Experts report identified 39 shipments from North Korea to Syria between 2012 and 2017, most of them sending arms, including chemical weapons. One member state informed the panel of a shipment from a North Korean front company that included grenade launchers, machine guns, and 30 mm autocannons. These are likely just the tip of the iceberg—during the same time period at least two states reported interdicting North Korean arms shipments to Syria, one of which included tiles used in the construction of new chemical weapons facilities.

Some have said that North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to other rogue states represents a redline, but that bridge has already been crossed. In 2008, the year after the Israeli air force destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor, a briefing from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence definitively showed that Pyongyang was assisting Syria in building a copy of the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, which North Korea has used to produce its own nuclear weapons. (The Deir ez-Zor facility would have been able to produce the same thing for the Syrians.) According to a high-ranking Iranian defector—Ali Reza Asghari, a former deputy defense minister—the construction of the reactor was financed by Iran, to the tune of some $2 billion, according to Israeli estimates. When it comes to Syria, North Korea has literally proliferated everything from rifles to a nuclear program to a troubled nation still divided by civil war.

An undated image released by the U.S. government shows the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor under construction, released March 2018.


North Korea’s best customer, however, is not Syria but Iran. The two states’ relationship began in earnest during the Iran-Iraq War. By the end of the war in 1988, some 300 North Korean military advisers were on the ground in Iran, and Pyongyang had reportedly sold Tehran more than $1 billion in conventional arms, training, and military assistance. 

Like Syria, Iran is a major purchaser of North Korean conventional weapons. Iran’s Ghadir-class submarine, for instance, appears to be an exact replica of a North Korean submarine called the Yeono—the same model that sank a South Korean navy corvette in 2010. The Iranian–North Korean relationship, however, also extends to Iranian funding of weapons purchases by its regional proxies and allies, including Hezbollah, the Syrian government, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza—many of which come from North Korea. According to Larry Niksch, a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “North Korea may receive from Iran upwards of $2 to $3 billion annually . . . for the various forms of collaboration between them.” This estimate makes sense, particularly if one includes the many arms purchases for Syria and nonstate actors that Iran has made from Pyongyang in recent years. The Houthis have used North Korean ballistic missiles—probably Scuds captured from the Yemeni government—to threaten the Saudis and have also used longer-range variants of North Korean missiles, provided by Iran, to target Riyadh. In April, Israeli intelligence assassinated a Hamas engineer in Malaysia who was involved in negotiating an arms deal with Pyongyang. 

Although conventional weapons are an important part of the Iranian–North Korean relationship, what is truly eye-catching is Iran’s purchase of ballistic missile systems over the years. Iran began buying Scud-B missiles from North Korea in the mid-1980s for use against Iraq and started the process of acquiring Scud-C missiles soon thereafter, around 1990. The Scud-C purchases marked an important milestone: rather than selling the completed missiles, North Korea began setting up manufacturing and assembly facilities within Iran itself. These facilities have been the source of confusion among international analysts, since they allow Iran to claim that it is indigenously producing these weapons systems despite the fact that they cannot be made without assistance from, and parts manufactured in, North Korea.

In 1993, North Korea conducted its first known successful test launch of the Nodong—a test launch attended by Iranian officials. Soon afterward, in the mid-1990s, Iran began purchasing Nodongs using hard currency and possibly oil. In October 2015, the Iranians tested a missile called the Emad, which is essentially a Nodong with a slightly upgraded range—1,700 kilometers to the Nodong’s 1,500—and an improved guidance system. The Emad was likely built with both assistance and parts from North Korea. During the early 1990s, the North Koreans were also able to obtain a complete Russian SS-N-6 ballistic missile system, allowing them to develop their own variant known as the Musudan—a more powerful (if more complicated) missile than the Nodong. In 2005, Pyongyang allegedly sold 18 Musudan missiles to Iran. And in January 2006, Tehran reportedly conducted a successful test launch of the Musudan. Analysis of the launch led to an assessed range of 4,000 kilometers.

In 2013, it was revealed that Iran and North Korea were collaborating on a new, 80-ton long-range rocket booster for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and in 2015 reports emerged that Pyongyang had supplied Tehran with several shipments of missile components even as nuclear talks proceeded between Iran and the United States, with at least two shipments during the fall of 2015. In 2016, following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iranian officials acting on behalf of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group and Iran’s Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics, who had violated U.S. and UN sanctions by dealing with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, one of North Korea’s key front companies for weapons proliferation. Specifically, North Korean officials had visited Iran and Iranian officials had visited North Korea for contract negotiations regarding Iran’s purchase of the ICBM rocket booster that had first been revealed in 2013. Iranian technicians also traveled to North Korea as the rocket booster was in development.

Murkier than the Iranian–North Korean ballistic missile connection is Pyongyang’s relationship to Tehran’s nuclear weapons program—although widely suspected, evidence has largely been limited to anecdotal reports in the press. A 2003 article in the Los Angeles Times by the veteran reporter Douglas Frantz reported Iranian contacts with China, Pakistan, Russia, and North Korea in pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities. Most famous among these was the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, but Frantz also reported that “so many North Koreans are working on nuclear and missile projects in Iran that a resort on the Caspian coast is set aside for their exclusive use.” According to a January 2006 report by Robin Hughes in Jane’s Defense Weekly, North Korea constructed more than 10,000 meters of underground nuclear facilities for Iran. In 2011, reports in the European press suggested that North Korea had supplied Iran with a computer program simulating neutron flows and training for how to use it. And in November of that year, The Washington Post, citing intelligence provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that “Iran also relied on foreign experts to supply mathematical formulas and codes for theoretical design work [for its nuclear program]—some of which appear to have originated in North Korea.”

An Iranian Shahab-3 missile, based on the North Korean Nodong, in Tehran, September 1998.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters


Given the ongoing scale of North Korea’s proliferation efforts, how should policymakers in the United States and elsewhere respond? The Proliferation Security Initiative, an international effort to halt the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction initiated by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003, is a good start and with increased allied support in the form of resources and personnel could make a dent in North Korea’s illicit shipments. 

There are two further ways to fight the North Korean arms trade. The first is to more effectively enforce existing U.S. and UN sanctions. Sanctions are no better than the paper they are printed on unless international law enforcement and diplomatic entities actively work to ensure that nations, banks, and front companies violating the sanctions face the full force of U.S. and international law. On the bright side, enforcement was stepped up last fall as a result of Trump’s pressure campaign and is likely to constrain North Korea. The second is to use Section 311 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which empowers the U.S. Treasury Department to target terrorist financing, to go after banks, front companies, and individuals involved in North Korea’s complicated illicit financial network. If actors working on behalf of Pyongyang can be pinpointed and excluded from access to U.S. and allied banks and financial institutions, this will severely limit North Korea’s ability to sell and ship its weapons abroad. 

The Trump administration has already taken important steps in the right direction. On September 21, 2017, Trump issued an executive order authorizing the Treasury Department to completely cut off North Korean access to the U.S. dollar and to sanction any person or entity attempting to do business with Pyongyang. The United States can—and likely will—go after banks and front companies in China, but it will also pursue them in places such as Singapore, Malaysia, and several countries in Africa. 

North Korea has for many years been able to use the money it earns from military proliferation to pay for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, oversize military, and subsidies for the elite that keeps Kim in power. As Trump prepares to meet with Kim, it would be good for him to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors, none of whom succeeded in disarming North Korea or containing its rogue-state behavior. The administration of George W. Bush, for instance, brought Pyongyang back to the bargaining table with an economic pressure campaign that effectively cut into the profits of North Korea’s financial networks. But when it came time to dismantle its nuclear program, Pyongyang engaged in the “action for action” model, gaining concessions from the United States without in the end giving up any of its nuclear weapons program.

Washington must not repeat these mistakes. It would also be good to remember that verifiable steps are not dismantlement. Unless the United States is allowed to inspect all nuclear sites at the time of its choosing, and until it becomes clear that North Korea has completely dismantled its nuclear program, Washington must keep up the pressure on Pyongyang’s illegal economic activities—proliferation key among them. Continued pursuit of North Korea’s weapons trade and the financial networks that support it is not only the right thing to do but essential for giving Washington the leverage to pressure Pyongyang.

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