A UN effort to detect illegal arms smuggling found that throughout 2016 North Korea was continuing to smuggle weapons out of the country and do business despite the many trade sanctions placed against it. The UN investigators found evidence of North Korean weapons being used in several African nations, especially ones that themselves were subject to UN bans on receiving foreign weapons. Often this evidence was uncovered by UN peacekeepers, most of whom are assigned to trouble spots in Africa.
North Korea was using its commercial and diplomatic contacts in Africa to find buyers and arrange clandestine shipment. Because of sanctions on North Korean use of the international banking system Africa is particularly attractive. That’s because of the rampant illegal trade in valuable ores and gems there and the many outlaw traders that buy and sell the stuff. Thus North Korea often takes payment in these rare commodities and then converts these items to cash which is smuggled back into North Korea. Thus North Korea arms merchants can do business in any of the many areas in Africa with lax law enforcement for clandestine smuggling and financial activities. This is all the more important because since early 2016 China has shut down a lot of those North Korean activities within China. The North Koreans were apparently quick to adapt.
Clandestine weapons exports to Africa is nothing new for North Korea. For example a 2013 a photo from North Korea showed an Il-76 transport in military colors. This was odd because while the North Korean state airline operates three IL-76s, the North Korean Air Force was never known to do so. The IL-76 in the picture appeared to be a civilian version with a military paint job. At the time it was unclear what the North Koreans were up to, although it was known that North Korea had used Il-76s in the past for arms smuggling and shady business in general. So having one pass for a military transport was probably part of some new smuggling scheme. Similar to the older American C-141, over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years. Nearly a hundred Il-76s were exported so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya, and Syria. Most of these countries are willing to tolerate, for a price, the use of their Il-76s for some profitable illegal trade.
This was not the first time the North Koreans were caught using air transport for smuggling. For example, in late 2009, the U.S. alerted Thailand that a Georgian Il-76 transport, flying from North Korea, would stop to refuel in Thailand, had false documentation, and other problems worth looking into. When the transport arrived and Thai police checked, they found that the manifest listed the cargo as oil drilling machinery but the stuff was actually 35 tons of weapons. The crew was arrested (for carrying weapons and false documents) and the cargo was removed to a safe location for more thorough inspection. After going through all the containers (mostly wooden boxes marked "oil drilling equipment"), the Thais found ballistic missile components, apparently for North Korea's most recent, 6,000 kilometer range, missile. These were apparently headed for Iran (which can pay big bucks for such stuff and North Korea needs the money). The documents found on the transport, and interrogations of the five man crew, revealed that North Korea went to great lengths to try and hide who owned the aircraft, what the cargo was, and where it was headed. Iran continues to maintain trade relations, often illegal, with North Korea. Even though Iran got a treaty in 2015 to lift most of the trade sanctions it was long under the Iranians continue to have need of its smugglers to support its illegal activities (like supporting Islamic terrorism internationally.)
The Il-76 is the air equivalent of the old “tramp steamer” (elderly cargo ship favored by smugglers because of low cost but being reliable enough to deliver the goods). The Il-76 is certainly old and cheap (often available for as little as a million dollars) but reliability is becoming more of a problem so crews are paid well, in a similar fashion to those piloting drug smuggling planes in the Americas. .
North Korea has had to rely more on air transport for its arms smuggling because since 2012 there has been an increasingly effective crackdown on their use of merchant ships for smuggling. Some cases became famous, like the 2013 incident where a North Korean freighter was discovered off Panama carrying Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) buried under a cargo of sugar. This turned out to be part of regular trade between the two countries. It was all unraveled when Panamanian authorities conducted a search of the North Korean freighter because of an American tip that the North Korean ship was carrying illegal cargo. A Panamanian warship passed near the North Korean vessel approaching the Panama Canal and noted that the North Koreans had turned off their tracking devices. This is what drug smugglers often do and the Panamanians forced the North Korean ship to stop so they could search it. The 35 man crew tried to resist the search and scuttle the ship but the heavily armed police made it clear that this might just get a lot of the North Korean sailors killed. The North Korean captain later tried to commit suicide. The ship was brought into a Panamanian port for a search and the crew were arrested.
Further investigation showed that for years a North Korean freighter would show up in Cuba every three of four months. Often the North Korean ships travelled (in violation of international law) with its tracker turned off. This is the AIS (Automated Identification System) and was originally developed to make it easier to track ships at sea. AIS is essentially an automatic radio beacon (transponder) that, when it receives a signal from a nearby AIS equipped ship, responds with the ship's identity, course, and speed. This is meant to enable AIS ships to avoid collisions with each other. Most large ships also carry INMARSAT, which enables shipping companies keep track of their vessels, no matter where they are on the planet. INMARSAT uses a system of satellites which transmit AIS-like signals to anywhere on the oceans. It only costs a few cents to send an INMARSAT signal to one of your ships, and a few cents more to receive a reply. The trackers, especially AIS, are essential to prevent collision while GPS and INMARSAT are crucial to avoid running into reefs, rocks, or (in bad weather) coastline. Only smugglers will turn these devices off, and this is often discovered when navies spot one of these ships on the high seas.
North Korean cargo ships are often found “running dark.” The North Koreans will turn on their devices when entering foreign ports, to avoid problems with the local authorities. The trips to Cuba were long believed to be some kind of smuggling operation, but since Cuba had little of military value for North Korea, no one looked too closely. Now it appears that Cuba was, at least in this case, trading sugar for repair services (on the missiles, the jet fighters and their engines, which wear out quickly). Cuba may also have been selling sugar as well as surplus weapons. Whatever North Korea and Cuba are saying, it is still in violations of the sanctions against North Korea, although North Korea insists that it is not. Besides, North Korea might have bought the old missiles and jets for their own use. North Korea has been caught buying MiG-21s illegally since the 1990s.
North Korea uses the same “running dark” tactics for its illegal airfreight deliveries to African nations. This is easier to pull off in Africa, which is, unlike the rest of the world, still lacking in an air traffic control system over most air space. Now more resources will have to be devoted to looking for illegal air traffic over Africa as well as monitoring ships that that are running dark and might have illegal North Korean cargo aboard.