North Korea’s Missile Allies

A UN report suggests strong links between Pyongyang and Iran over ballistic missiles. And with China.

By Rajaram Panda for

A new UN report sheds light on long-held suspicions that North Korea and Iran have been involved in the trade of ballistic missiles. The 81-page report by a panel of UN experts found North Korea has apparently persisted in attempts to export ballistic missiles, missile components and relevant technology to Iran. The report also suggests that North Korea has finished, or is close to completing, a second launch complex for long-range missiles along its west coast. The Dongchang-ri complex’s facilities may, it seems, be ‘bigger and more sophisticated’ than the country’s first missile launch installation at Musudan-ri.

The panel was charged with monitoring North Korea’s compliance with UN sanctions, including a ban on trade in nuclear and missile technology, an arms embargo and the freezing of the assets of several North Korean individuals. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions against North Korea after it conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Yet these sanctions, which are supposed to prohibit commerce in atomic and missile systems with North Korea, have yielded only mixed results.

The sanctions have certainly severely impacted North Korea’s economy, but with the regime badly in need of funds, it is said to have ‘actively engaged in the export of complete (missile) systems, components and technology to numerous customers in the Middle East and South Asia.’ The panel also suspects that Pyongyang is likely to have swapped missile technology with Iran.

North Korea’s activities over the past year suggest that it has made substantial progress in its nuclear weapons programme, including the establishment of a new uranium enrichment plant and work on a light-water reactor. At the same time, as the report notes, North Korea has ‘continued to defy the bans on imports and exports of nuclear-related items, of conventional arms and of luxury goods.’ The UNSC sanctions have been ineffective in preventing North Korea’s nuclear development and weapons sales, though ‘they’ve made it more difficult and expensive for the country to pursue these.’

There are numerous gaps and weaknesses in international transportation and cargo regimes and Pyongyang has taken advantage of these shortcomings to transport its weapons to customers. Indeed, Pyongyang has specialised in setting up fraudulent firms and offshore banking operations, and has been employing people with fake names to disguise the identities of blacklisted firms and officials undertaking illegal operations. For example, the panel found that the sanctioned Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. has four fake names identified by the UN sanctions committee, as well as 12 other identities that weren’t designated.

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The response from Iran, as expected, has been denial. It rejected charges of missile cooperation with North Korea. Slamming the panel’s findings as ‘fabrications,’ Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast argued that Iran’s own missile capabilities are so advanced that it doesn’t need outside help.

‘Iran’s (missile) technology and capability are advanced enough that we don’t need other countries to provide us technology or components,’ Mehmanparast said. ‘We have repeatedly rejected reports on the exchange of ballistic missile technology or parts with any country.’

However, an independent assessment made by US intelligence analysts suggests that Russia has also supported entities in China and North Korea to help Iran move towards self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles. Indeed, Tehran’s collaboration with Pyongyang on missile development was evident during an October 2010 North Korean military parade, which showcased a new Nodong missile warhead. The warhead possessed what has been described as a strong similarity with the Iranian Shahab 3 triconic warhead.

The UN report goes on to state that North Korea is indulging in illegal trade of missile technology by transhipment ‘through a neighbouring third country,’ suspected to be China. The document increases apprehension over Beijing’s willingness to implement sanctions targeting the nuclear activities of North Korea and Iran. The banned materials are believed to have been transferred from North Korea to Iran on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air. Since illegal shipment of cargo such as arms and related materials run the risk of physical inspection, North Korea prefers chartered cargo flights.

China has reacted strongly to the allegations of being North Korea’s most important ally. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said these assertions weren’t attributed to any country and that China wasn’t singled out. She added that the report hadn’t yet been adopted by the UN Security Council, and was therefore outside the ambit of the relevant Security Council sanctions committee.

However, China has a history of using its position as a veto holder to block the publication of UN reports that are critical of North Korea. The report has been sent to the 15 Security Council members for their approval, and will be released if all the countries agree. But the panel’s first report in May 2010 was held up by China and only released in November after Beijing dropped its objections. This time, the report’s submission itself was delayed after Chinese experts on the panel refused to sign the report, under pressure from Beijing. Such moves have raised serious questions over whether the panel was free of political interference.

Whatever China’s support for North Korea, though, it seems clear that the potential for Pyongyang to provide weapon-usable nuclear substances or atomic equipment to foreign nations continues to be a worry, and poses genuine challenges to international non-proliferation efforts. Besides the United States, Israel and other nations have also accused North Korea of illicitly aiding Syria in building an atomic reactor that was demolished in a 2007 Israeli air strike. The International Atomic Energy Agency is probing this matter.

There certainly seems enough evidence to suggest that Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment programme is primarily for military purposes. It seems clear, then, that if peace is to prevail in East Asia, Pyongyang must abandon its uranium enrichment programme and all aspects of its nuclear programme should be placed under international monitoring. How to check Pyongyang from being a proliferator remains a huge challenge for the international community.

Rajaram Panda is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.