What Trump and Kim Won’t Be Talking About in Hanoi
North Korea continues to sell arms and chemical weapons material around the world, says a confidential U.N. report.
U.S. President Donald Trump heads off to his second high-stakes summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week amid concerns that Kim has not taken enough action to dismantle his nuclear weapons program, even as the Trump administration has been hinting at a comprehensive peace deal with Pyongyang.
Yet in its push to make a deal with North Korea, the administration has consistently ignored Pyongyang’s ongoing weapons proliferation around the world, including in the Middle East. That stands in stark contrast to its rejection of the Iran nuclear accord, which Trump denounced as a “disaster” in part because it didn’t address the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East.
“North Korea behaves very differently. They’re not destabilizing Yemen. They’re not destabilizing Syria. They’re not conducting enormous assassination campaigns. These countries’ behaviors are different,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News in an interview on Feb. 13.
But a forthcoming confidential 350-page report by a panel of United Nations experts tells a different story, one in which Syria has emerged as one of Pyongyang’s largest conduits for the sale of military equipment throughout the Middle East and Africa, as well as chemical weapons materials. Operating through a Syrian arms dealer, North Korea has supplied arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as well as clients in Libya and Sudan, according to a diplomatic source who detailed the report’s findings for Foreign Policy.
“As far as weapons proliferation goes, I know nothing that has stopped,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who has studied previous versions of the U.N. report and is the author of the 2018 book North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa.
Bechtol said that based on an earlier version of the U.N. report and other evidence he has seen, North Korea’s sale of missiles, conventional weapons, and chemical weapons material to Syria continues unabated. He said North Korea also sends weapons to Iran and assists Tehran with its missile program, and that some of these weapons have been supplied to Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. “North Korea also continues to proliferate weapons and to train government forces for several nations in Africa,” he said.
The U.N. panel of experts is conducting numerous investigations into banned activities by North Korean officials in Syria, noting that North Korean technicians linked to Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and other prohibited operations have made regular visits to Syria, indicating that cooperation on banned activities continues. The panel cites a report by an unnamed U.N. member state that North Korea continues its cooperation with Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Pyongyang also has conducted a well-documented program of assassination abroad for many years, allegedly including the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, using VX, a deadly nerve agent, in Malaysia.
Yet the Trump administration has not called North Korea to task for this behavior, at least not publicly, despite Trump’s fierce criticism of former President Barack Obama for allegedly making that very mistake with Iran. On the contrary, Pompeo, who was for a time head of the CIA, publicly excused North Korea’s role in Middle Eastern conflicts, and Trump has repeatedly expressed his fondness for Kim.
The State Department did not respond to request for comment.
The U.N. report finds that North Korea continues to illegally import oil and luxury cars and raise tens of millions of dollars in revenues from the illegal export of arms and coal. Indeed, in a sign of North Korea’s often audacious attitude toward U.N. sanctions, Kim arrived at an Oct. 7, 2018, meeting with Pompeo in a black Rolls-Royce Phantom that the U.N. experts suspect may have been imported illegally.
The United States continues to sanction North Korea for past proliferation activities and human rights abuses. But, since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, critics have drawn comparisons between Iran and North Korea’s behavior—and their treatment by Washington.
Some are using the benchmarks that Obama clinched in his 2015 agreement with Iran—which Trump called “one of the dumbest deals I’ve ever seen”—to gauge what type of pact Trump can secure with North Korea. Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and other senior administration officials have long said the Iran deal was unacceptable in part because it did nothing to address Tehran’s bad behavior abroad.
Experts caution that while North Korea’s sales of weapons to terrorist groups in the Middle East have been well documented in the past, they’re not nearly as extensive as Iran’s. Pyongyang’s arms deals in the Middle East appear to be purely a “money-making operation” for the cash-strapped country, according to Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea.
“I don’t think there’s as close a nexus between the North Korean government and terrorist groups as there is between Iran and terrorist groups,” said Klingner, now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Even so, he said, “given the administration’s and the president’s criticisms of all previous agreements with North Korea as well as the [Iran nuclear deal], I think it’s a fair metric to use: Is a new agreement with North Korea better than all of those in the past?”
The U.N. panel says North Korea is also continuing its cyberwarfare and hacking programs around the region and the world. “They’re certainly highly active in conducting a lot of malicious cyber-activities,” said Michael Daniel, a former cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council under Obama and the head of the Cyber Threat Alliance. “And certainly they have made steady investments in their capabilities and have continued to train people.”
In the run-up to the summit, which is scheduled to take place in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28, some Korea experts say they are concerned that the U.S. president is so eager to fulfill his promises of a historic pact with North Korea that he will give away too much too quickly.
“I worry that the president wants the peace most, more than the denuclearization,” said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. Snyder and other North Korea experts who spoke at a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington on Feb. 21 warned of hints from administration officials—including chief negotiator Stephen Biegun—that the peace treaty Pyongyang has long sought may be in the offing, even without major additional steps on denuclearization. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty, essentially freezing the conflict but not formally ending it.
In remarks at Stanford University at the end of January, Biegun said Trump “is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime.” Biegun added that “we need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization.”
That statement appears to contrast with previous U.S. demands that substantial steps toward what Biegun called “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea must come before a peace treaty and the lifting of sanctions. At the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China are also pushing for a gradual lifting of sanctions.
Trump has consistently raised hopes that Kim will follow through on his commitment to denuclearize, made more than eight months ago at their first summit in Singapore. In recent weeks, the administration has taken steps to ease the delivery of humanitarian relief to North Korea.
But here too Trump has been at odds with his own intelligence chiefs. At a congressional hearing in late January, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats provoked the president’s ire when he testified that “North Korea will seek to retain its [weapon of mass destruction] capabilities, and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” Coats added: “Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
The U.N. panel found that North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex—whose closure would be a critical element of any nuclear deal—remains active, despite a series of brief suspensions of operation last year. Uranium mining activities are ongoing at the Pyongsan mine.
In his Stanford speech, Biegun said that “while we would want to be much farther along … It has been more than 400 days since North Korea has undertaken a provocative test of missiles or nuclear weapons.” He noted that North Korea has taken preliminary steps to dismantle and destroy a pair of missile and nuclear test sites, Tongchang-ri and Punggye-ri. But he acknowledged that “these sites are not critical parts of the current North Korean missile or nuclear programs.”
“The pause in testing has slowed the speed of their advance. I don’t see how it’s reduced those capabilities,” said Rebecca Hersman, the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Despite tough U.N. sanctions, North Korea has raised most of its revenue through a massive increase in illegal shipping schemes—including the impersonation by sanctioned ships of legal cargo vessels—that effectively thwart U.N. sanctions.
Banned vessels have evaded detection by painting over their ship name or through a scheme known as “spoofing,” which involves broadcasting false ship identification numbers as they approach North Korean ports. The United States and other countries have also detected a massive increase in illegal so-called ship-to-ship transfers, in which large oil tankers in the East China Sea unload their crude oil onto smaller, unknown vessels.
North Korea’s illicit trade has been facilitated by a network of financial agents operating in several countries with apparent impunity. As European Union banks shuttered North Korean accounts, North Korea’s chief intelligence branch, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, simply moved money to financial institutions in Asia. North Korean middlemen and diplomats who came under scrutiny for financing illicit activities have simply opened up accounts in the names of family members or associates.
But some of North Korea’s boldest efforts to secure funds involve the use of an array of cybercrimes, including online scams and the hacking of the global SWIFT messaging system. There, Pyongyang’s activities dovetail with those of Tehran.
“At various points both the Iranians and North Koreans have engaged in mutual training exercises,” said Daniel, the cyber-expert.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch