As Iran, Syria crises heat up, N. Korean missile exports boom

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By Donald Kirk,

WASHINGTON — North Korea stands to be a major winner if Israeli hotheads lose patience and drive Israel into attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.

With Iran said in some quarters to be only months away from emerging as the world’s 10th nuclear weapons power, North Korea reportedly is producing more middle-range missiles for export for Iran’s defense in the event of a Middle East war that would make the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan look like brush fires.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (center) visits KPA Air Force Unit 378 in January. /AFP

North Korea also is producing more missiles for export to Syria, whose embattled regime has the support of Iran and would be a major Iranian ally in the event of a shooting conflict between Israel and Iran.

It’s against that background that James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, warned that North Korea, ostensibly under new “supreme leader” Kim Jong-Un, would carry on business as usual when it came to exporting missiles, for years one of the North’s biggest-selling export products.

Clapper, at a congressional hearing, specifically cited Iran and Syria as two markets for North Korean missiles and supporting material.

North Korean missile exports are believed to have shrunk over the past year as revolt in Arab countries that were once major clients has reduced the number of potential markets.

Another problem for the North is how to ship the missiles, or their components, against the threat of blockage of such shipments by nations banded together in the Proliferation Security Initiative under which countries can block shipments.

North Korean vessels have been turned back in a couple of highly publicized incidents, but many more are believed to have finished the long journey. North Korea is also believed to have shipped missiles and other sophisticated weapons via its only real ally, China.

Analysts for years have suspected China of opening up its air space to North Korean planes with military cargoes on board — a claim that China has denied.

The prospect of broadening sales of missiles to long-time clients Iran and Syria, however, is just one way in which North Korea would benefit from war in the Middle East.

With U.S. forces inevitably drawn into conflict there, the North could be sure the U.S. would not want to take any chances on risking a second Korean war and might want to transfer a major portion of the 28,500 U.S. troops still left in the South to the Middle East.

At the same time, Kim Jong-Un has been visiting military units, giving a sense that he identifies with the troops while also trying to show he’s really in charge and wants to learn much more than his father was able to teach him in the last two years before Kim Jong-Il’s death was announced on December 19.

The appearance of the pudgy Jong-Un, straining at the seams of a dark blue suit designed to make him look all the more like his grandfather, the late Kim Il-Sung, definitely shows his commitment to songun, the “military first” policy propounded by Kim Jong-Il in his strongest role — that of chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Kim Jong-Un’s aging handlers, believed to be led by Jang Song-Thaek, the husband of his father’s sister, seem anxious to demonstrate the continuity of songun but also to remain open for dialogue — on their terms. The sense is growing that North Korea might be open somehow to resuming six-party talks on its nuclear program, last held more than three years ago, or even to an exchange with South Korea.

Dialogue, though, won’t come easy in view of the North’s efforts at intimidation in the run-up to two important anniversaries — the 70th of the birth this month of Kim Jong-Il and the 100th in April of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994. North Korea emitted mixed signals in an extraordinary “open questionnaire” that it put out this week posing questions for South Korean leaders.

The “questionnaire,” issued In the name of “the policy department of the National Defense Commission”, which Kim Jong-Il as chairman once made the center of his power, began with the nasty rhetorical question: Were the “traitors” led by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak “ready to deeply repent of its heinous crimes concerning the great loss to the Korean nation and make apologies for them” — an allusion to South Korea’s refusal to mourn the death of Kim Jong-Il while banning delegations from going to Pyongyang to offer condolences.

The only exceptions were a delegation led by the widow of Kim Dae-Jung, the president who initiated the “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation, and the widow of Chung Mong-Hun, the chairman of Hyundai Asan, the company that Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai empire, formed to do business with North Korea.

The second question harked back to the inter-Korean summits between Kim Dae-Jung and his successor, Roh Moo-Hyun, both of whom went to Pyongyang for meetings with Kim Jong-Il that ended in flowery statements full of promises that would never be fulfilled. Did the South Korean “authorities” intend to live up to the “joint declaration” of June 15, 2000, in which Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il vowed to enter a new era of peace and reconciliation?

Question three asked, “Can the Lee group promise the world it can no longer hurt the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] over Cheonan warship case and Yeonpyeong Island shelling incident.?”

That was a particularly loaded reference to the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan in March 2010 in which 46 sailors died — an episode that South Korea blames on a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine — and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in November 2010 that killed four South Koreans.

The North has denied anything to do with the shelling of the Cheonan and said the South provoked the attack on the island by firing cannons close to the North Korean shore several kilometers away.

Question four was whether “the south Korean authorities could make a policy decision to stop big joint military exercises targeted against the DPRK?” This is a reference to annual war games, many conducted on computers, involving thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops — the lower case “s” is no mistake.

Behind the bluff and bluster of such tendentious questions presumably lies the hand of Jang Song-Thaek. He remains vice chairman of the National Defense Commission on which Kim Jong-Un does not have a seat. Jong-Un, still in his late 20s, is acting chairman of the military commission of the Workers’ Party — not regarded as the key post — even though he is referred to as “supreme leader” and “supreme commander”.

If the questions seemed deliberately contrived to defy and upset the South Koreans, they also suggested that somehow dialogue on one level or another might be possible. They also indicated that dialogue would probably go nowhere while Kim Jong-Un went on ingratiating himself with the military — and the U.S. worried about spreading its forces too thin in the event of a war that Washington doesn’t want with Iran.

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