By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Published: Jan 11, 2011 12:46 PM Updated: Jan 11, 2011 12:46 PM
North Korea has become an important player in Middle Eastern security. The Asian country has created a proliferation network of nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction extending beyond its well-known relationship with Iran. The impact of this network is a growing concern not only to various Middle Eastern countries, but also to American diplomats and troops in the region.
Following North Korea’s recent attack on South Korea, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked how the world would be able to stop Iran if it cannot deal with the Asian country. This is not the first time that Lieberman has spoken out against North Korea. Last year he accused Kim Jong-il’s regime of smuggling weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. While the comparison between North Korea and Iran might be far-fetched, Lieberman is right when he says that proliferation from Pyongyang to the Middle East exists. In fact, North Korea has a well-honed nuclear technology and ballistic missiles proliferation network in the region. And even though Iran is its most well-known client, it is by no means the only one.
Syria is North Korea’s second most important client in the Middle East after Iran. Israel’s bombing in 2007 of the North Korean-designed Al-Kibar plutonium nuclear reactor in Northern Syria brought to light the close relationship between Pyongyang and Damascus. But far from halting cooperation between both, the bombing seems to have strengthened bilateral links. A report commissioned by the UN published last November accused North Korea of providing assistance in “the design and construction of a thermal reactor in Deir Al-Zour.” The report also noted that a Syria-bound North Korean shipment of containers filled with working protective garments that could be used for chemical protection was seized by the South Korean authorities in October 2009. There can be little doubt that the Kim Jong-il regime is helping Bashar Al-Assad’s government develop its nuclear programme, of which relatively little is known.
Egypt is another big Middle Eastern client for North Korea. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service in the United States noted that Pyongyang has been providing Cairo with missile production technology for some years now. The relationship between both countries dates back to the late 1970s, when Egypt supplied North Korea with Scud B missiles in return for Pyongyang’s support during the Yom Kippur war. Today it is North Korea transferring missiles to Egypt, which shows the sophistication of its weapons of mass destruction programmes. The American government has been wary of publicly criticizing the military links between a friendly regime in the Middle East and North Korea. Procurement of missiles is one of the few ways for Egypt to try to balance Iran’s nuclear programme, thus serving American interests in the region.
Hezbollah is an important North Korean client in the Middle East as well—relations between the Lebanon-based organization and the Asian country date back to the 1980s. Today, Hezbollah receives arms and training in guerrilla warfare from North Korea. In December 2009, Thailand seized a North Korean plane carrying arms destined for the group. This only confirmed suspicions of the supply network going from Pyongyang to Lebanon. Equally relevant, Israel blamed its inability to defeat Hezbollah in their 2006 war on the guerrilla warfare training that the group’s fighters received in North Korea, as well as on the tunnels constructed following the Asian country’s specifications. This shows how close the relationship between the Kim Jong-il regime and non-state groups in the Middle East can be.
Aware of the strength of North Korea’s proliferation network in the Middle East, some governments around the region are now more deeply involved in international efforts to disrupt Pyongyang’s exports. In July 2009 the United Arab Emirates seized a military shipment destined for Iran. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have reportedly asked the United States to ensure that nuclear technology and weapons transfers from North Korea to the Middle East are kept to a minimum, since completely halting them is considered unfeasible. North Korea’s nuclear programme is today as much a concern among American friends in the Middle East as it is among its allies in East Asia.
There are two major obstacles for those who seek to weaken North Korea’s proliferation network in the Middle East. The first and most important one is money. Cash-strapped North Korea, suffering from dwindling trade with its two major trading partners China and South Korea, is seeking to diversify its economy. Nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction are the two only products in which it can compete on a global scale. The Middle East, home to cash-rich countries engaged in a decades-long arms race, is the perfect market for Pyongyang. American pressure on its allies for them not to sell weapons or nuclear materials to certain countries in the region means that the list of possible suppliers is short. Pyongyang is at the top of it, given the advanced stage of its nuclear weapons programme and its proven willingness to transfer production technologies and finished products. As proliferation continues the network strengthens, thus making North Korea an even more attractive supplier.
In addition, the Kim Jong-il government knows that proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction is one of the few remaining cards it can play, when it comes to relations with the United States. Despite recent tensions in the Korean Peninsula, most analysts agree that North Korea is unlikely to start a full-scale war that would ultimately result in its defeat. Therefore, relations between Pyongyang and Washington under the Barack Obama administration now follow a familiar pattern whereby any North Korean action perceived as a provocation leads to American condemnation but little else. Proliferation to the Middle East could serve as a way to break this pattern and make Washington join Pyongyang in the negotiation table, which the Kim Jong-il regime seeks to achieve. As former US National Security Council director of Asian affairs Victor D. Cha puts it, “every North Korean provocation has been followed, sooner or later, by talks.” Proliferation is one such provocation. The United States would probably be ready to offer some carrots to North Korea in exchange for halting nuclear and missile transfers to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. The right economic and diplomatic incentives would possibly make North Korea accept and end its proliferation network in the Middle East. Dialogue rather than sanctions are the best means to halt North Korean proliferation.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo – expert on counterproliferation, he is a lecturer at King’s College, London. His forthcoming book on North Korea’s foreign policy is temptatively titled "From the ‘Axis of Evil’ to ‘Dear Mr. Chairman’: How North Korea Bargains with the United States".
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