Weapons: North Korean Merchants of Death


May 22, 2024: For nearly half a century North Korea has been selling weapons to anyone who could pay, and that often included the cost of stealthy delivery. Payment was preferably up front and no credit terms were allowed. Delivery was usually done by ships of the North Korean Ghost Fleet. North Korea also had a collection of Cold War era transports to deliver the goods. Occasionally these deliveries were detected and seized. Fingers were wagged at North Korea for naughty behavior. Not much could be done because North Korea had been living under numerous economic and military sanctions for decades. The incorrigible North Koreas ignored the obstacles and continued with their arms export to anyone who could pay, no questions asked.

North Korea’s best customers were North African and Middle Eastern countries. These customers included the usual suspects like Libya and Syria who had suffered from civil war and foreign interference for over a decade. More affluent Iran manufactures many of its own weapons but has been under sanctions since the 1980s and needs help in getting some items. The North Koreans offered to help and they did. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, they have also turned to North Korea for weapons. Even the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas was found to be using weapons obtained from North Korea.

North Korea also provided essential components to nations building their own guided missiles. Key components are not available to outlaw states that are heavily sanctioned. North Korea found that supplying these countries was lucrative because North Korea could obtain these items vis its own smuggling network and provide them to customers at a very profitable markup. Many nations with assets and little desire to spend money on the welfare of their own people could afford to buy weapons from North Korea that they were prevented, by sanctions, from obtaining openly.

The most popular North Korean exports are the ballistic missiles it manufactures, mainly for export. These missiles are sold but rarely used. Recently that changed when Russia, after invading Ukraine, ran out of the missiles it manufactured. North Korea was able to provide Russia with all the ballistic missiles Russia could pay for. Russia was short on cash but North Korea was willing to accept oil, food, and technical help to improve the primitive North Korean nuclear weapons.

Russia quickly used North Korea’s Hwasong 11 ballistic missiles against targets in Ukraine. With a 700 kilometer range, these missiles could be fired from inside Russia or Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory at targets throughout Ukraine. Not many of these missiles hit their intended targets in Ukraine because of construction defects. Some Hwasong 11 exploded before they reached their target and others reached the vicinity of the target where the guidance system proved incapable of getting the missile to land close enough to the target to do any damage. Many of the Hwasong 11s were intercepted by Ukrainian BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) missiles. Ukraine was intercepting a lot of the Russian ballistic missiles but the Russians know that the Ukrainians could not intercept all the missiles if many were launched at a target at the same time. This is what made the otherwise second-rate Hwasong 11 useful as part of a mass attack.

One positive result of all these Hwasong 11 failures was that malfunctioning missiles often hit the ground largely intact and made it possible to collect many electronic components that would be blown into tiny pieces if the missile detonated. Larger electronic component fragments were easier to identify by type and manufacturer. Investigators were surprised to find so many electronic components from western countries. These components were often sold to a legitimate customer but then deliberately lost or waylaid by smugglers who marked up the price and sold the components to whoever could pay the asking price up front and arrange for the items to be delivered to them. This turned out to be where a lot more components were going than the manufacturers formerly believed possible. Since these components have serial numbers making it easy to track components to who originally purchased them and in many cases that led to identifying who was diverting shipments to smugglers. The disreputable purchasers, at least the successful ones, often shut down and reappear under a new name before the anti-smuggling efforts catch them. The component manufacturers are in a competitive industry and are always seeking new customers. As long as a new customer appears sufficiently authentic, the sales are made.




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