A Look at North Korea’s Global Weapons Business

By Foster Klug 18 July 2013

SEOUL, South Korea — The countries known to have done weapons business with North Korea make a long list, but the revelation that Cuba sent it missile parts and weapons on a ship stopped by Panama has puzzled some analysts.

North Korea and Cuba share similar anti-US ideologies, and Havana hosted a senior North Korean military delegation less than a month ago, but the countries aren’t seen as major weapons business partners. Cuba said Panama seized obsolete weaponry that Havana had sent to be repaired.

North Korea has a long history of aggressively buying, marketing and selling arms, especially in developing countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Much of that business was in sales of short- and medium-range missiles, but the market for full missile systems was thought to have dried up in recent years.

That’s partly because of international pressure and sanctions banning weapons exports that followed North Korea’s three nuclear tests since 2006 and a string of long-range rocket launches. Sales may have also suffered because of the poor-quality, Soviet-type weaponry that Pyongyang has traditionally produced.

Since the 1990s, analysts say, Pyongyang has been favoring exports of conventional weapons and the equipment and components that are used in missile production assembly lines. North Korea cannot export heavy arms or material related to nuclear weapons or missiles under UN Security Council sanctions.

Here is a look at some high-profile North Korean arms seizures and inspections that provide an idea of who’s in the market for Pyongyang’s goods. It is based on UN reports and a 2011 study by arms control expert Joshua Pollack, who has compiled public reports on seizures and inspection:

The Middle East

Late last year, UN diplomats reported that 445 North Korean-made graphite cylinders, capable of being used to produce ballistic missiles, were seized in May from a Chinese freighter ship at the South Korean port of Busan on their way to Syria.

In December 2009, Thailand intercepted a charter jet from Pyongyang carrying 35 tons of conventional weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. Thai authorities reported that they were headed for Iran, a major North Korean missile and weapons client.

In October 2007, propellant blocks that could be used to power Scud missiles were seized from a ship heading to Syria, according to a report by a 2012 UN expert panel.


Pyongyang has tried also to sell shorter-range missiles and Soviet-vintage rockets and guns to customers in Africa. There have been reports in recent years of seizures of shipments heading to Eritrea, Republic of Congo and Burundi.

In November 2009, tank parts and equipment bound for the Republic of Congo were reportedly found in South Africa.

In three separate incidents in 1999 and 2000, missile parts and components were found to be on their way to Libya.

In 1996, artillery rockets and Scud missile components were reportedly found in Switzerland and bound for Egypt.


Washington says one of the contracts between Burma’s former ruling junta and North Korea was for Pyongyang to help Myanmar build medium-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.

In June 2009, Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper reported three arrests over an alleged attempt, on instructions from North Korea, to illegally export to Burma a magnetic measuring device believed necessary for long-range ballistic missiles.


On Tuesday, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang, which had left Cuba for North Korea, was carrying missiles and other arms hidden beneath a cargo of sugar. He revealed a picture of a green tube that an expert said appears to be a horizontal antenna for radar used to guide missiles fired by an air-defense system.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” had been shipped out to be repaired and returned to the island. It said the cargo included two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes.