The North Koreans Are Better Gunrunners Than You Might Think

The North Koreans Are Better Gunrunners Than You Might Think

In hindsight, the Chong Chon Gang probably wasn’t the best ship to task with running guns through America’s backyard.

With a huge North Korean flag emblazoned on its smoke stack and a history of trouble with the law, the ship was about as conspicuous a candidate as possible for carrying missile and fighter plane parts from Cuba to North Korea. If the entire episode looks fairly amateurish, well, that’s because it was. That ship now sits in a Panamanian port as investigators unearth the weapons hidden beneath 10,000 metric tons of sugar.

But don’t write off the North Koreans as gunrunners just yet. When it comes to eluding international arms trafficking controls, the North Koreans are some of the best in the game, according to Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The fact that North Korean weapons periodically turn up all over the world only serves to illustrate that high-profile incidents like the Chong Chon Gang are only the tip of the iceberg. The shipments that have been seized by governments around the world provide a snapshot of the weaponry North Korea likes to peddle.

In 2011, for example, the United States forced a North Korean ship bound for Myanmar and alleged to have been carrying missile technology to turn back to port. A year earlier, South African officials intercepted a Congo-bound shipment of spare parts for T-54 or T-55 tanks, which had been shipped by a North Korean firm and then transferred to a French vessel in Malaysia (the cargo manifest listed the shipment as bulldozer components). In 2009, another North Korean ship bound for Myanmar, this one carrying guns and rocket launchers, was forced to return home. That same year, Thai authorities intercepted a planeload of arms and sophisticated missiles, including 35 tons of explosives.

Since there are few more obvious candidates for an inspection than a North Korean ship heading from one rogue state to another, the North Koreans have adopted savvy strategies for evading non-proliferation regimes. For major arms transfers, Griffiths tells Foreign Policy, the North Koreans like to place goods in shipping containers and move them across the world using unsuspecting captains and shipping lines, including many of the world’s largest, most of which are based in the West. "They are much better at moving materials which have a greater strategic importance and a higher proliferation risks," Griffiths says.

In one case from 2012, North Korea routed a shipment to Myanmar through a series of Chinese cities to obscure cargo that was believed to violate arms trade sanctions against the North. According to Griffiths, this tactic is a North Korean favorite and can serve as an effective method of ensuring that cargo originating in the North doesn’t raise red flags in logistics systems. 

In light of North Korea’s history of weapons shipments, this week’s seizure — described by Cuba itself as consisting of "obsolete defensive weapons" — is small potatoes. Remember that North Korea worked hand-in-glove with Syria for years to develop a nuclear reactor before Israel destroyed the project in a 2007 airstrike.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this week’s operation was incredibly sloppy. According to Griffiths, there are several ways that North Korea could have avoided having the weapon shipment seized. Most obvious among them is using a so-called flag of convenience, or registering the vessel under a country other than North Korea. Never mind the fact that someone should have at least had the presence of mind to paint over the gigantic North Korean flag adorning the vessel. "Sailing into the U.S.’s backyard calls for a little more caution," Griffith dryly observed.

These oversights lead Griffiths to believe that this was a rushed job. North Korea could clearly have taken measures to circumvent arms controls. The fact that they did not indicates that they may have been somewhat desperate to move the shipment, Griffiths says.