Despite punitive sanctions enacted by the UN, reports have repeatedly shown that North Korea is retaining a vast global network of covert relationships and alliances.
By serving as a cheap and reliable armourer and contractor, the it utilises a complex web of agents, diplomats, couriers, smugglers and brokers to evade UN mandated restrictions.
The most lucrative aspect of this activity is the DPRK’s trade in weapons.
The Middle East is a particularly important marketplace in this regard, mirroring the experience of western defence companies.
Here, a common thread ties the weapons programmes of Egypt, Syria and Iran: All three have benefited from North Korean expertise. The UN recently detailed the extent of Pyongyang’s relationships in a report submitted to the Security Council.
Egypt-North Korea cooperation
While not frequently discussed, Egypt has maintained a ballistic missile programme since the 1960s, initially based on Nazi era designs.
Although the North Koreans received missiles from the Soviets, much of their original arsenal was derived from Scud-B technology acquired from Cairo in 1976.
The Egyptian Scud-Bs were reverse engineered with Chinese support, allowing North Korea to indigenously produce these munitions. Scuds are prized weapons that can deliver conventional as well as nuclear and chemical warheads. The missiles were a reward for North Korea’s military assistance to Egypt during its confrontations with Israeli forces in the Yom Kippur War.
Nor are ties limited to defence. The Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris was instrumental in setting up North Korea’s first cellular network, Koryolink, bringing North Koreans modern mobile phone technology.
The now shuttered Orabank was also setup to facilitate payments between the Hermit Kingdom and Egypt; and Sawiris’ Orascom Group even completed the exterior of the decaying pyramid shaped Ryugyong Hotel that dominates Pyongyang’s skyline.
Although a chief beneficiary of American military aid, the Sisi regime is loath to break ties with Pyongyang – a key demand of the Trump administration.
This has led to awkward conversations, such as when a cargo ship loaded with North Korean weapons was “intercepted” by Egypt on US insistence. Though Cairo made a show of destroying these captured armaments, it is widely believed that they were destined for the Egyptian defence conglomerate, the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation.
Egypt also hosts North Korea’s largest embassy in the region, which doubles as a weapons trading hub, providing access to everything from Soviet-era technology, to North Korean rockets, to military advisers. On an island in the middle of the Suez Canal, a monument in the form a gigantic AK-47 muzzle and bayonet, erected by North Korea, provides a constant reminder of this close, collaborative alliance.
Armourer to the Syrian regime
Of all of its ties to the Middle East, North Korea’s support for the Syrian regime is arguably the most destabilising. In 2018, Israel acknowledged bombing Syria’s secret North Korean origin nuclear site at Al Kibar in 2007.
The Mossad had acquired pictures of Al Kibar’s reactor whose design mimicked Pyongyang’s Yongbyon facility. Other nuclear facilities similarly bear a North Korean imprint. This includes a potential nuclear weapons site at Qusayr. Unlike the Al Kibar facility, which lacked air defences and relied on camouflage, Qusayr appears to be submerged underground, a technique perfected by the North Koreans.
Documented sanctions violations have revealed that North Korean technicians have been embedded in Syrian military bases, and collaborated with the Assad regime in developing Scud-D missiles; some of which may have been transferred to Lebanon’s Hizballah. In fact, Syria has long been a customer of North Korean Scud systems, with confirmed purchases stretching back well into the 1990s.
Cooperation between the two states is not limited to nuclear weapons and missiles. Previous UN reports include allegations of a steady shipment of DPRK sourced goods to Syria to reconstitute its chemical weapons programme.
In December 2016, a UN “member state” interdicted a shipment destined for Damascus, which included specialised acid resistant tiles for a “chemical factory” that was “commensurate to a large-scale industrial project”. The tiles were shipped by North Korea’s primary arms dealer, the sanctioned Korea Mining Development Corporation.
The DPRK has also substantially intervened in the Syrian civil war. Not only has the North supplied conventional weaponry to help Assad kill his own people; but cooperation has extended to military advisers who have guided tactics on the battlefield and rebuilt destroyed military facilities.
Additionally Syria facilitated dialogue between North Korea and the Houthis in Yemen for acquiring weaponry despite a UN embargo. The Syrian arms dealer Hussein Al Ali brokered these exchanges and a protocol of understanding was signed between the Houthis and the DPRK in 2016.
Furthermore, Ali has assisted the North in selling weapons to Libyan factions, Sudan, and developing gold mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Iran and North Korea – mutually assured cooperation
The UN report notes how Iran is “one of the two most lucrative markets” for North Korea’s military trade.
Originally, Iran was a net recipient of North Korean technology, and acquired missiles from the DPRK in the 1980s. These transfers helped Iran establish indigenous production, although key components are still sourced from North Korea.
Today, the relationship between Tehran and North Korea has evolved beyond the transactional and a growing body of evidence suggests that Iran now aids the North in perfecting their own missiles.
Experts have noted the similarities between the Hwasong-14 and Iranian designs, which imply a deep level of cooperation. Partial conformation of this came in January 2016, when the US Treasury sanctioned Iranian individuals and entities for their work on both North Korean and Iranian weapons programmes.
North Korea as a model
The DPRK’s Middle Eastern relationships illustrate the degree to which regional observation of international norms have deteriorated.
From the illegal invasion of Iraq, the continuing Saudi-led aggression against Yemen, the shielding of Israeli nuclear weapons, to the regularisation of torture and civilian death, these aberrations typify an environment where international law is irrelevant. Kim Jong Un’s regime has skillfully profited from this anarchic atmosphere.
The North Korean justification for their behaviour is obvious: Western powers, Russia, and their proxies have themselves regularly violated norms in equally profound and destabilising ways and secured their interests while doing so.
Adherence to this logic will further erode trust in the existing global order’s ability to manage conflict and, based on North Korea’s conduct, other powers will also seek to emulate and profit from clandestine activities.