Curbing North Korea's illicit arms trade is difficult since the renegade country launders containers carrying weapons three or four times, a defector who was in charge of illicit arms deals told the Chosun Ilbo on Monday.
The defector revealed that a factory in Jagang Province, which is believed to produce tractors, is the center of the communist country's weapons production, including chemical warheads. The defector, who is under police protection, did not want his identity to be revealed fearing reprisal attacks against family members still in the North.
◆ Foreign Forwarders Transport Weapons
Five departments of the North Korean government are involved in arms exports: the military arms production wing of the Workers' Party, the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, the Surveillance Division of the People's Armed Forces, Operational Department of the Workers' Party and the Second Economic Committee. He said the Economic Committee, which is directly under the control of the powerful National Defense Commission, is the biggest.
The military arms production wing procures materials for the Yongbyon nuclear plant and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "The General Bureau of Atomic Energy only produces yellow cake [the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment], while the arms production wing is in charge of the Yongbyon facility," the defector said. The Second Academy of Natural Sciences exports missiles and also provides after-sales service for exported products by upgrading performance and exchanging components.
"The main client is the research center of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, while experiments are conducted in unison," he said. Iran successfully test-fired a rocket on Feb. 3 which is believed to have been powered by the same engine as North Korean Rodong missiles.
But international sanctions against North Korea make it difficult to export weapons by conventional means. "This is where the Surveillance Division of the People's Armed Forces comes in," the defector said. Its "traders," who studied at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, are fluent in English and Chinese and sign deals with "forwarders" from other countries. Through this process, North Korea sends containers across the Apnok (or Yalu) River to China one third or half filled with weapons. "The forwarder who received this cargo enters a port in a third country, where the containers are filled with freight unrelated to weapons and the paperwork is completed," he said.
These "laundered" containers are laundered again in Hong Kong, Singapore or other ports. "The containers are mixed with other cargo in those transit points. They are searched, but not thoroughly," the defector added. "Even if customs or other officials roll their sleeves up and search for weapons, how can they possibly find the arms among the mountains of other containers headed to other countries?"
◆ 'Tractor Factory' Is Weapons Production Base
North Korea's main weapons production base is Kanggye General Tractor Plant No. 26. Before the Korean War, the plant was based in Pyongyang and made Soviet-designed PPSh 41 submachine guns but has since been relocated. Over 10,000 workers there manufacture ammunition and even chemical weapons. The People's Armed Forces is in charge of chemical weapons production. "The Bio-chemical research center affiliated with the military is located next to the Kanggye plant," the defector said. "The toxic gases produced at the research center are loaded onto warheads manufactured at the plant."
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il makes a point of visiting the factory two to three times a year. He last paid a visit on Dec. 9, 2009.
◆ AK-47 Rifles and Ammunition Are Top Sellers
"Small arms ammunition are hot export items and the Second Economic Committee even built a factory in Ethiopia," the defector said. The rugged AK-47s, which can operate flawlessly even in the sand-filled battlefields of the Middle East, are extremely popular, he said.
Anti-tank missiles are more complicated to manufacture, so the blueprints are in Russia, while North Korean factories are merely subcontractors. North Korean arms are believed to be exported to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines. "North Korean weapons with engines [such as tanks] are extremely poor quality, but those carrying warheads are not bad," the defector said. Around 20 percent of the parts used to make export versions of missiles are imported. But missiles for domestic use are made using mostly North Korean-made parts, so there is a difference in performance. "North Korea tried to import Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Taiwan," he added. "This probably has something to do with the South Korean Navy's use of the Harpoon missiles."