North Korea has been build­ing its mil­i­tary prow­ess for decades


North Korea seems to have made in­cred­i­bly rapid strides to­wards be­ing able to de­stroy cities thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away. But this hasn’t emerged overnight. Nor has it come en­tirely from North Korea’s re­sources, tech­nol­ogy or know-how. It has ben­e­fited from more than a lit­tle help from its sur­viv­ing friends, over many years, to at­tain such a po­tent ca­pac­ity to kill masses of peo­ple.

Who have been its most im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tors on this deadly jour­ney? Its path to be­com­ing a nu­clear power be­gan back in 1956, when the Soviet Union started to train its sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers in the ba­sic knowl­edge re­quired to cre­ate a bomb. Three years later, the coun­tries signed a for­mal agree­ment to co-op­er­ate in nu­clear de­vel­op­ment.

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, a lead­ing ex­pert on nu­clear weapons pro­cure­ment, says that “in those days the North Kore­ans were part of a fam­ily of Soviet-ori­ented coun­tries that was do­ing nu­clear re­search to­gether. They were all sub­ject to con­trols and en­force­ment by Moscow.”

When the Cold War came to an end about 1990, they had been in­volved in nu­clear re­search for 30 to 40 years. North Korea con­tin­ued to pro­cure equip­ment — in­clud­ing, Hibbs says, dual-use items then read­ily ob­tain­able from China, such as tools for mak­ing bi­cy­cles that could in­stead make cen­trifuge equip­ment or nu­clear weapons parts. Dur­ing the key years be­fore its first nu­clear test in 2006, it kept switch­ing sources from coun­try to coun­try, cre­at­ing in each place new mail­box lo­ca­tions and new com­pa­nies to evade scru­tiny.

In 1962, North Korea opened the Yong­byon Nu­clear Sci­en­tific Re­search Cen­tre, built with Soviet as­sis­tance. About 1980, the gov­ern­ment be­gan min­ing its own ura­nium, from which it started cre­at­ing fuel for re­ac­tors.

In 1985, the coun­try signed the in­ter­na­tional Nu­clear Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty, but did not per­mit in­spec­tions of its fa­cil­i­ties. In 1992, a team from the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency un­der Hans Blix — who be­came well-known dur­ing the stand-off with Sad­dam Hus­sein that pre­ceded the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq — was fi­nally given ac­cess. Blix be­came con­vinced North Korea was pro­duc­ing weapons-grade plu­to­nium.

In 1998 it used a satel­lite launch as a ruse, mil­i­tary ex­perts be­lieved, to test a long-range mis­sile — shoot­ing it over Ja­pan, as it has done again twice re­cently.

The Stock­holm In­ter­na­tional Peace Re­search In­sti­tute found that North Korea earned about $1 bil­lion over the past decade from sell­ing weapons, in­clud­ing to Iran, Syria and Libya. A 2016 UN re­port de­tailed North Korea’s prof­itable trade in air de­fence sys­tems, satel­lite-guided mis­siles, and en­crypted mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear.

In 2002, US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush de­clared North Korea part of the “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq. Py­ongyang quit the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion treaty the fol­low­ing year. Its “axis” com­rade Iran has be­come an im­por­tant part­ner. North Korea en­deared it­self by sell­ing sub­stan­tial arms dur­ing the vi­cious eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. The coun­tries de­vel­oped a busy ex­change of mil­i­tary ex­per­tise, which has not taken a step back since — de­spite the in­ter­na­tional ac­cord fi­nalised with Iran two years ago to con­strain its nu­cle­ari­sa­tion.

In May this year, Iran tested a cruise mis­sile from a sub­ma­rine that ap­peared sim­i­lar to a North Korean mis­sile-equipped model. The coun­tries’ mis­sile de­vel­op­ments have been con­strued as co­in­ci­den­tal, run­ning on par­al­lel lines — but some an­a­lysts are con­vinced they must be re­lated.

Is­raeli de­fence anal­y­sis has in­di­cated that Iran orig­i­nally ob­tained North Korean bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy, then up­graded it, and passed that ex­per­tise back to Py­ongyang.

North Korea’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, Kim Yong-nam, pres­i­dent of the Supreme Peo­ple’s Assem­bly, flew to Iran last month for an un­usu­ally long visit — 10 days — for the in­au­gu­ra­tion of re­elected Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, and for talks about col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the coun­tries. He was ac­com­pa­nied by a large del­e­ga­tion that in­cluded mil­i­tary fig­ures, and in­spected the new em­bassy just built in Tehran.

Rouhani said the na­tions’ mu­tu­al­ity had reached a “very high stage”, and “the friendly re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries, which have jointly strug­gled against the US, will boost our close­ness in broader fields”. He also lam­basted sanc­tions as “a failed and fruit­less pol­icy”.

NK News re­cently said that since the 2015 nu­clear deal re­mov­ing the Iran sanc­tions, bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­vel­op­ment has been the most con­sis­tent area of the coun­tries’ co-op­er­a­tion.

It said that while in the past North Korea de­ployed hun­dreds of nu­clear ex­perts to work with Ira­nian coun­ter­parts and pro­vided Tehran with key nu­clear soft­ware, “the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the mis­siles tested by Py­ongyang in the past few months and Iran’s tech­nol­ogy sug­gests Tehran is now con­tribut­ing to North Korea’s nu­clear build-up”.

North Korea is also watch­ing closely the fu­ture of the in­ter­na­tional deal — cru­cially, a US deal — with Iran, to as­sess whether this pro­vides any kind of model that it might be pre­pared to con­sider.

Rus­sia, which has a 17km land bor­der with North Korea, re­mains a cru­cial sym­pa­thiser, if not sup­porter. When the Soviet Union col­lapsed, Boris Yeltsin switched Rus­sia’s fo­cus to­wards South Korea and cut aid to the North. But the Vladimir Putin era that be­gan in 1999 saw a swing back to the old loy­alty. Five years ago, Rus­sia agreed to write off $12.6bn of North Korea’s $14bn debt, much of it his­toric, as a good­will ges­ture to then new leader Kim Jong-un. The residue would be spent on Rus­sian hu­man­i­tar­ian and en­ergy projects within North Korea.

In 2014, No 2 leader Kim Yong­nam and Kim’s spe­cial en­voy Choe Ry­ong-hae held meet­ings with Putin in Rus­sia. Only two years ago, the coun­tries held a “Year of Friend­ship”. But in re­cent years Rus­sia has op­posed North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram, wish­ing to limit the nu­clear armed group to the small orig­i­nal cir­cle of na­tions in­clud­ing it­self.

Pak­istan is an­other coun­try that has helped North Korea be­come a nu­clear power. Then prime min­is­ter Zul­fikar Ali Bhutto made a state visit there 40 years ago as he strength­ened ties with so­cial­ist coun­tries around the world. His daugh­ter Be­nazir, who was as­sas­si­nated al­most a decade ago, is be­lieved to have ne­go­ti­ated the pur­chase of North Korean long-range Rodong mis­siles, on which atom bombs could be mounted, in re­turn for grant­ing ac­cess to Pak­istan’s then-civil­ian nu­clear tech­nol­ogy.

Pak­istan’s top nu­clear sci­en­tist, Ab­dul Qadeer Khan — the “fa­ther” of his coun­try’s own atom bomb — trav­elled about a dozen times to North Korea, pro­vid­ing cru­cial tech­ni­cal ad­vice. He has pub­licly ad­mit­ted vis­it­ing Py­ongyang. “Of­fi­cially we had a pro­gram with them,” he said.

This ap­pears to have in­volved North Korean di­rect pay­ments, as well as mis­sile pro­vi­sion, with two gen­er­als in­volved in Pak­istan’s 1998 nu­clear tests al­leged to have re­ceived large amounts of cash and jew­els, which they de­nied.

Khan “con­fessed” on Pak­istani TV in 2004 that he had sold cen­trifuge tech­nol­ogy to Iran and Libya as well as North Korea and ad­vised those coun­tries’ nu­clear pro­grams, say­ing the in­volve­ment of his team was purely free­lance and mer­ce­nary. Later, he said that he had only ab­solved the Pak­istan gov­ern­ment from in­volve­ment in re­turn for his free­dom from threat­ened de­ten­tion.

China is clearly the coun­try near­est in every re­spect to North Korea. They are each other’s only for­mal al­lies, hav­ing signed a treaty in 1961, but Chi­nese aca­demics say that Py­ongyang’s nu­cle­ari­sa­tion pro­gram — against con­stant op­po­si­tion from China — has al­ready nul­li­fied any re­cip­ro­cal de­fence re­quire­ment.

Mao Ze­dong said they were “as close as gums and teeth”. He gave his heart in a very spe­cial way to North Korea. His old­est, favourite son Any­ing is buried there, killed by a US air strike in 1950 dur­ing the Korean War, aged 28 and mar­ried for just a year.

Mao, who had be­come the leader of the new Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China only a few months be­fore, had re­sponded pos­i­tively to North Korean founder Kim Il­sung’s des­per­ate cry for help, af­ter he had in­vaded the south but was then driven back when the UN voted to sup­port a US-led coali­tion, which in­cluded 17,000 Aus­tralians, to re­pulse the north­ern ag­gres­sors.

Mao over­rode strong op­po­si­tion to com­mit a large force. The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party had only re­cently won the civil war, which it­self fol­lowed a long war against Ja­pan.

De­spite the his­toric links be­tween the North Korean Work­ers’ Party and the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party, there has been a rapid cool- ing of the re­la­tion­ship since the ac­ces­sion of Kim Jong-un as the third ruler of the Kim dy­nasty. He is widely de­rided in China as Jin San Pang, “Fatty Kim the Third”.

China, with a 1420km bor­der with North Korea, re­mains its dom­i­nant eco­nomic part­ner, re­spon­si­ble for 90 per cent of the coun­try’s trade, but it has re­cently prided it­self in ad­her­ing to in­creas­ingly tough UN sanc­tions. But it re­mains re­luc­tant to cut North Korea’s ac­cess to the “Friend­ship Pipe­line” down which 90 per cent of its crude oil is pumped.

New re­search by The Wall Street Jour­nal has re­vealed that the re­cent ra­pid­ity of North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile ad­vances may have re­sulted from ex­per­tise brought home by the large num­ber of its sci­en­tists study­ing abroad, the bulk of them in China.

China, while also close to both Iran and Pak­istan, and more re­cently to Rus­sia, has how­ever be­come in­creas­ingly wor­ried about the rapid mil­i­tari­sa­tion of its re­gion in re­sponse to those rapid steps by Py­ongyang.

But any sec­ond thoughts or con­cerns now be­ing ex­pressed by North Korea’s re­main­ing or for­mer as­so­ciates won’t al­ter the core, fright­en­ing fact that Kim him­self feels im­preg­nable, astride his nu­clear ICBMs.



North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with mil­i­tary lead­ers at a con­cert, main; bot­tom from left, Kim Yong-Il with Vladimir Putin in 2002; China’s Xi Jin­ping meets Kim Yong-nam; Yong-nam shakes hands with Iran’s Has­san Rouhani; Pak­istan’s top nu­clear...




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