The Buzz

North Korea Has Smuggled In U.S. Military Equipment

However, many countries would acquire both military and civilian MD 500s legitimately, due to their very low cost, and adapt them into military roles with gun pods and rockets. And it so happens that one of those countries was South Korea: Korean Air had delivered more than 270 MD 500s under a license for the Republic of Korea Army and Air Force.

Thus, it seems that North Korea likely acquired the MD 500s so it could use them to infiltrate across the demilitarized zone with South Korean markings, conducting surprise raids and inserting spies and saboteurs. North Korea maintains more than two hundred thousand commandos in its Special Operations Forces, more than any other country in the world. In the event of a conflict with its southern neighbor, Pyongyang would deploy thousands of operatives behind South Korean lines via tunnels, submarines, stealthy motor boats and helicopters to disrupt communication and supply lines and spread panic. Indeed, upon learning of the MD 500 caper, South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan angrily upbraided Washington for inadvertently making infiltration easier.

Pyongyang kept its substantial MD 500 fleet under wraps for decades, though a North Korean colonel admitted to the purchase in a 1996 interview with Der Spiegel. Keeping the aircraft functioning and supplied with spare parts would have posed quite a challenge. After the unveiling in 2013, a quartet of the American-built helicopters was again on display at the 2016 Wonsan air show, one of the choppers performing stunts for the audience.

The MD 500s seen over Pyongyang were modified to carry four Susong-Po antitank missiles. These are locally produced derivatives of the Russian Malyutka-P (NATO codename AT-3 Sagger-C), an older missile semiautomatically guided by the firer via a control wire. An earlier version of the AT-3 made a name for itself blowing up Israeli Patton tanks during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This suggests North Korea envisions an attack role for the handy little choppers.

South Korea, for its part, may have its own plans for its large MD 500 fleet, which includes fifty antitank types armed with TOW missiles. Korean Air is proposing to transform these Little Birds into drone helicopters! This could be a handy way to employ the copters in a battle zone where their survivability rate might not be very high.

Pyongyang is not the only nation to attempt such shenanigans using shell companies. Iran famously acquired parts from the United States for its F-14 Tomcat fighters for decades. In 1992, shell companies established by the United Kingdom managed to purchase several T-80 tanks from Russia at a generous $5 million a piece, supposedly for service in Morocco. Instead, they were thoroughly taken apart and evaluated by the British, and then sent to the United States. More recently in 2015, U.S. citizen Alexander Brazhnikov was arrested after using shell companies in Ireland, Latvia, Panama and five other nations to smuggle $65 million in restricted electronics to the Russian defense ministry, nuclear-weapons program and intelligence services.

Still, none of these episodes quite match North Korea’s rare feat in shipping over eighty-seven factory-fresh helicopters from the United States.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Korean People's Army (KPA) artillery troops conduct a live firing exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 12, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA

​This first appeared in October. 

Image: Reuters.