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  • Omar Khan

North Korean Arms Trafficking Rife in the Middle East

Pyongyang, 1992. Mossad deputy director, and later chief, Efraim Halevy travelled to the North Korean capital discreetly that November. Israeli Foreign Ministry diplomat Eytan Bentsur and his delegation, tasked with exploring the idea of working with Kim Il-Sung’s regime, were unaware of Halevy’s presence when they arrived at the same time. Shimon Peres, the then-foreign minister, greenlighted Bentsur’s mission after becoming aware of the North Korean offer to halt arms sales to Iran, and other Israeli opponents, in exchange for Israel buying and possibly rehabilitating a derelict gold mine in Unsan.


Bentsur maintains that the North Koreans understood no bilateral relations could be established while they continued to sell weapons to Israel’s enemies – in 2017, he blamed Mossad for the delegation’s failure. Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not permit Peres and Bentsur to accept Pyongyang’s next invitation in January 1993 partly due to US and South Korean pressure, ending the possibility of cooperation. According to Bentsur: “The Mossad pressured the CIA into pressuring [the then-US Secretary of State], and that was the end of it.” This episode was just one of several incidents that saw North Korea wade into the Iran-Israel conflict and reflects their extensive involvement in the MENA region.


On 19 January 2023, a diplomatic spat ensued between Tehran and Seoul causing both governments to summon each other’s ambassadors after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called Iran the “enemy” of the UAE. During his visit to Abu Dhabi, Yoon also compared the apparent threat Iran poses to the Emiratis with that faced by South Koreans from their nuclear northern neighbour. The dispute comes exactly two months after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman strengthened the Riyadh-Seoul alliance at a summit in South Korea, emphasising economic and military cooperation, and has reopened discussion about North Korea’s unique relationship with the Middle East.


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) proliferates arms worth around $100 million every year, partly to antagonise their foes in Washington, but mainly for financial gain. After their first nuclear test in 2006, the UN prohibited the sale of certain military gear. After their test in May 2009, however, the Security Council imposed a total ban on the trade of all North Korean arms. To import equipment from the DPRK would be in violation of international law – not that that has stopped many of Pyongyang’s customers. One of the latest to come into the spotlight is Russia. Towards the end of 2022, a declassified US intelligence report claimed that North Korea was “in the process of selling arms to Russia in violation of UN security council sanctions”. Though Pyongyang fervently denies this, it is clear that their relationship with Moscow has strengthened since the invasion of Ukraine.


Across the Middle East, notable cases of North Korean sales to both state and non-state actors have shed some light on a generally obfuscated, but nonetheless critical sector of the global arms trade and its effect on regional relations.


IRAN & ISRAEL: THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY

The Islamic Republic is one of North Korea’s best customers, continuing to receive missile parts even during the nuclear deal talks in 2015. Initiated during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Pyongyang-Tehran alliance has seen North Korea earn roughly $2-3 billion annually. Importantly, Iran often foots the bill for weapons sold to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis, as well as Syria.


While in pursuit of the Soviet-era Scud-C ballistic missile in the 1990s, Iran accepted North Korean assistance in building its own production facilities. When the DPRK developed the Nodong later that decade, with a range of 1500 km (more than double that of the Scud-C), Iran allegedly paid with oil and in 2017 tested their own Emad missile, derivative of the Nodong. Tehran also purportedly bought 18 Musudan missiles (range 4000 km) in 2005. Around the same time, reports emerged that North Korea was supporting Iran’s covert nuclear weapons programme by helping to construct underground facilities and providing technical advice, though this is disputed.


The West’s response to their friendship has been divided. For instance, in 2016, the US sanctioned Iranians connected to the defence ministry or the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group which had both dealt (illegally) with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), Pyongyang’s principal front company. By contrast, in April 2018, Israeli intelligence allegedly gunned down a Hamas engineer, in suburban Kuala Lumpur, who negotiated arms deals with North Korea. Given the enmity between Iran and Israel, and the high stakes involved, it is understandable that the 1992 endeavour is still debated today. Preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weaponry was brought to the forefront of Israeli strategy in 1999 when the country’s ambassador to Sweden secretly met his North Korean counterpart at a cafe in Stockholm. According to accounts of the meeting, North Korea demanded $1 billion in exchange for not selling nuclear technology to Iran. Israel countered with an offer of food aid instead which Pyongyang rejected. Today, the idea of an Israeli-North Korean reconciliation seems fanciful. All three countries are facing different domestic struggles which make predicting their next moves difficult – previous discussion of renewing the Iran nuclear deal (which Israel virulently opposes) seems to have been suspended since the Mahsa Amini protests swept the nation. Certainly, though, as the Iranian and North Korean regimes each become increasingly isolated from the international community, their alliance will no doubt grow more important and, especially from Kim Jong-un’s perspective, more lucrative.


EGYPT: CAIRO’S MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR GRENADE GAFFE

After stopping the Jie Shun at Ain Sokhna port and spending three months holding off the Americans and the North Koreans, both desperate to secure its cargo, the Egyptian government finally let UN inspectors on board in November 2016. They found a colossal 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades worth $26 million, but nothing to indicate who the buyer was. Except for one clue: a stencil marking on a crate that read “Al Sakr Factory for Developed Industries (AOI)”.


Egypt’s military apparatus has maintained a positive relationship with the DPRK since the 1970s – during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, North Korean pilots died fighting alongside their Egyptian counterparts. Around the same time, the two countries worked together on upgrading the Scud missile. According to a former Defense Intelligence Agency operative, the US went as far as to give Egypt F-16s in response to their pursuit of the Nodong in the 1990s. Mere months before incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in a coup in 2013, a cargo of Scud-B components was intercepted on its way from Beijing to Cairo – the designated recipient was a company that did not exist but shared a fax number and address with a subsidiary of the Egyptian defence ministry.


Returning to the case of the Jie Shun in 2016, the extent of Cairo’s relationship with Pyongyang was laid bare. The vessel, bearing a Cambodian flag, had 30,000 RPG-7s in 79 wooden crates hidden underneath 3200 tons of iron ore. The “(AOI)” on the crates referred to the Arab Organization for Industrialization, described by the New York Times as Egypt’s “state weapons conglomerate” – Sisi leads the committee responsible for the AOI. As in 2013, Cairo denied any connection to the weapons. Washington, normally on good terms with Sisi’s government, reacted furiously – in August 2017, the US suspended nearly $300 million in military aid. Egypt subsequently cooperated with the Americans who were forced to take action under the 2016 North Korean and Police Enhancement Act.


North Korea’s embassy in Cairo has been identified as a vital arms trafficking hub in the region. Under diplomatic protection, embassy officials have made deals across Africa and the Middle East. While it was subject to an international embargo, Sudan bought satellite-guided missiles and in 2013, a DPRK diplomat (in Cairo) went to Khartoum to secure the sale of 180 missiles for $6.8 million. That diplomat, as well as the North Korean ambassador to Egypt himself (at the time, Pak Chun-il), were sanctioned by the US in 2016; Pak was described as an agent of KOMID. That year, the US ambassador to the UN told the Security Council: “An arms dealer with a diplomatic passport is still an arms dealer.”


The Egyptian Air Force (EAF) has made headlines in recent years for its billion-dollar purchases of French, Italian, and Russian aircraft as well as the American jets it has received for decades. While presented as a way to avoid being tied to any one sphere of influence, analysts say that any benefit would be severely eclipsed by the challenges of integrating Russian and Western aircraft. For example, the Russian MiG-29 and Su-34 planes are incompatible with the types of bombs and missiles the French Rafales and EAF F-16s use. Regardless, and in spite of the diplomatic gaffe around the Jie Shun, it seems unlikely that Cairo will abandon its relationship with either Moscow or Pyongyang. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Washington has been more keen to sell Egypt equipment it previously refused to so as to avoid Cairo’s purchase of Russian hardware. While the Jie Shun incident would have no doubt shook Sisi’s military-dominated government, it is hard to envisage Egypt closing its channels to North Korea anytime soon.


UAE & YEMEN: FORGET THE MEMO

Early on in the Yemeni conflict that would become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, South Korean intelligence reported that the 20 Scud missiles fired at Saudi Arabia by the Houthi rebels in 2015 were from North Korea – the weapons were purchased by Sana’a in the years following unification in 1990.


A leaked US State Department memo titled “SECRET/REL UAE” revealed that in June 2015, Emirati company al-Mutlaq Technology procured $100 million worth of North Korean arms from KOMID operating through the International Golden Group, a trading entity run by Fadhil Saif al-Kaabi, a close friend of then-Crown Prince and today’s President Mohammed bin Zayed. Most observers agree that the companies were used as a cover for Abu Dhabi’s sanction-violating purchase. But given that the UAE is considered one of the US’ closest military allies in the region, why would they risk buying Soviet-era weapons from North Korea? The answer, though complex, lies in Yemen.


On 17 January 2023, there was a quiet sigh of relief across the Arab world when Saudi and Houthi negotiators restarted backchannel discussions aimed at ending the eight-year war that has impoverished Yemen and killed 150,000 people. As of this month, there has been a pause in fighting for nine months despite no official ceasefire being in place (the last one expired in October). Omani intermediaries and the Houthis keep Tehran updated on the talks – for now, all sides seem willing to negotiate. Currently, while the Saudis are prepared to lift the blockade on Hodeida and reopen the Sana’a airport, they have conditioned paying military salaries (a key Houthi demand) on the Za’idi group accepting “security guarantees” that include a buffer zone along their border and the removal of the blockade on coalition-held Taiz. A Houthi official has indicated that his group are reluctant to accept these “guarantees” and will not allow oil and gas exports from government-controlled regions unless the military salaries are paid and the revenue is distributed according to population (i.e. Houthi-controlled areas, which are the most populous in the country, would receive roughly 80%). Critically, observers have emphasised that one reason why previous talks broke down was the diverging aims of coalition members, most prominently, Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government, the Aden separatist-backing UAE.


Similar to its aforementioned neighbours, the UAE’s relationship with Pyongyang began with the purchase of Scud-B missiles in the late 1980s, while the young desert nation was developing F-16 and Mirage 2000 systems. Strategically, in the face of Tehran’s relentless nuclear ambitions, the idea of the Emiratis developing a nuclear deterrent of their own was often floated – analysts say this is the principal reason Abu Dhabi kept channels open with Pyongyang despite growing closer to Washington. (Other possible nuclear allies like Pakistan or China were ruled out as it was understood neither would want to turn away from Iran.) Returning to the 2015 purchase, the timing, overlapping with the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, was no coincidence.


Analysts suggest that the UAE’s ironic strategy was to buy North Korean weapons so that Iran (and by extension, the Houthis) could not. Stopping Tehran from acquiring arms from the DPRK is a priority for both Riyadh and Washington – hence why Abu Dhabi got away unscathed (helped, of course, by obscuring the payments). The 2009 seizure by the UAE of an Iran-bound ship filled with North Korean arms surprised many – despite what it looks like in Yemen, Abu Dhabi is a close trading partner with Tehran. The seizure impressed Saudi Arabia as, presumably, did the idea that the Houthis missed out on $100 million worth of weapons (because the UAE bought them instead). Crucially, that Washington tacitly supported the UAE’s strategy highlights how sanctions against North Korea, despite the rhetoric, are not inflexible and are swayed heavily by international realpolitik, especially in the Middle East.


COVERT OR OVERT?

Some observers believe that North Korean arms sales to the Middle East are declining – though they recognise that it is difficult to tell given the opacity and clandestine nature of the deals. Other cases, not discussed in detail here, include attempts to supply light weapons to the Houthis via a known arms trafficker and the pivotal relationship with Syria to whose infamous chemical weapons programme Pyongyang is also connected. The motif throughout these cases, though, is the question why US-allied Arab states would jeopardise their friendship with Washington for North Korean missiles.


While its northern neighbour’s activities are often in doubt, South Korea’s arms deals with the Middle East are overt and expansive. Last year, the UAE bought the Cheongung II KM-SAM air defence system through a $3.5 billion contract. Turkey built the T-155 Firtina howitzer, identified in military operations in Syria and Iraq, based on Seoul’s K9 Thunder system. Iraq itself has purchased T-50 Golden Eagle trainers. Ultimately, the few known cases of North Korean arms trafficking in the MENA region put a spotlight on one of Pyongyang’s most impactful source of income while highlighting the reluctance of Middle Eastern states to put their faith entirely in the Western bloc. How the hermit state’s relations with the region will continue to affect relations there remains to be seen.



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