Here’s What You Need to Remember: North Korea’s continued success in growing and expanding its illicit arms trade is perhaps the starkest illustration of a trend that has long drawn the alarm of Korea experts: the international sanctions regime has proven largely toothless, if not counterproductive, as a means of starving DPRK’s military-industrial complex.
North Korea (DPRK) is sometimes described as an ‘autarky,’ or economically self-reliant state, but this label belies some of the core workings of the North Korean economy: among them, a vast, illicit arms trade that continues to thrive in spite of the international sanctions regime arrayed against Pyongyang.
In the early 1980s, Premier Kim Il-Sung’s DPRK found a lucrative niche as a small arms exporter to dozens of warring and unstable third world nations; these included Libya, Yemen, Uganda, Madagascar, Iraq, Syria, Iran. The crown jewel of North Korea’s arms export ambitions became Zimbabwe, newly independent from British colonial rule; a warm personal relationship between Il-Sung and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe made Zimbabwe one of DPRK’s most loyal customers over the 1980’s, importing a wide array of heavy military hardware including T-14 tanks, armored vehicles, missile defense systems, and artillery installations. According to a 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency report, arms sales grossed for a considerable $4 billion from 1981 to 1989 and comprised over one-third of DPRK’s total export volume in 1982.
In the following decade, DPRK branched out into the missile and nuclear technology business. It is difficult to ascertain the full scale of North Korea’s 1990’s export activities, but defectors and declassified intelligence reports name Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam as among the dozens of prospective clients expressing interest in North Korean missiles or missile technology well into the early 2000’s.
The growing cascade of UN and EU-imposed sanctions in the wake of Pyongyang’s 2003 withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has certainly cut into North Korea’s arms export bottom line, but Pyongyang has proven remarkably adept at discovering new ways to skirt the sanctions regime. Though legally binding, none of the nine U.N Security Council Resolutions that make up the bulk of North Korea’s sanctions burden are self-enforcing. It falls on every individual member state to take adequate action against financial dealings with Pyongyang—a mandate that is being met with mixed success across the third and developing world.
According to a 2019 UN report, North Korea has developed a sophisticated criminal network to continue selling arms through a diverse cast of proxies, front companies, and foreign middlemen. In recent years, North Korea became a leading arms supplier to the Houthi movement in Yemen, as well as militant groups in Uganda and Sudan, mainly by funneling its merchandise through a Syrian company registered to arms trafficker Hussein al-Ali. Pyongyang has likewise succeeded in cultivating valuable ties at the highest echelons of the Libyan Defense Ministry, resulting in an arms contract that O Chol Su, the Deputy Minister of DPRK’s Ministry of Military Equipment, described as necessary “for the required defence systems and ammunition needed to maintain stability of Libya.”
North Korea also heads a robust maritime smuggling ring. In what the UN described as the "largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” customs officials found a cache with 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades aboard a North Korean vessel en route to Egypt. As it later turned out, the client was none other than the Egyptian Armed Forces themselves; Egypt’s military ordered the North Korean munitions through a complex web of Egyptian business proxies.
North Korea’s continued success in growing and expanding its illicit arms trade is perhaps the starkest illustration of a trend that has long drawn the alarm of Korea experts: the international sanctions regime has proven largely toothless, if not counterproductive, as a means of starving DPRK’s military-industrial complex.
This article is being republished due to reader interest.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.