Tag Archives: North Korea

North Korea Transfers Missile Goods to Iran During Nuclear Talks

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BY:   North Korea supplied several shipments of missile components to Iran during recent nuclear talks and the transfers appear to violate United Nations sanctions on both countries, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Since September more than two shipments of missile parts have been monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies as they transited from North Korea to Iran, said officials familiar with intelligence reports who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Details of the arms shipments were included in President Obama’s daily intelligence briefings and officials suggested information about the transfers was kept secret from the United Nations, which is in charge of monitoring sanctions violations.

Critics of the U.S.-led nuclear framework agreement reached in Switzerland earlier this month have said one major deficiency of the accord is its failure to address Iran’s missile program, considered a key nuclear delivery system for the Islamist regime.

CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani declined to comment on the missile component shipments, citing a policy of not discussing classified information.

But other officials said the transfers included goods covered by the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary agreement among 34 nations that limits transfers of missiles and components of systems with ranges of greater than 186 miles.

One official said the transfers between North Korea and Iran included large diameter engines, which could be used for a future Iranian long-range missile system.

The United Nations Security Council in June 2010 imposed sanctions on Iran for its illegal uranium enrichment program. The sanctions prohibit Iran from purchasing ballistic missile goods and are aimed at blocking Iran from acquiring “technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

U.S. officials said the transfers carried out since September appear to be covered by the sanctions.

Other details of the transfers could not be learned. However, U.S. intelligence agencies in the past have identified Iran’s Islamic Republic of Iran

Shipping Lines (IRISL) as the main shipper involved in transferring ballistic missile-related materials.

A U.S. report to the United Nations sanctions committee in 2010 stated that Washington closely cooperates with partner states in monitoring IRISL and other Iranian merchant shipping companies that pass through airports, seaports, and other international borders. The report said the United States takes “steps to prevent transfers of items prohibited by this and by previous Iran-related resolutions.”

The American efforts to block arms transfers are carried out under the George W. Bush administration’s international Proliferation Security Initiative.

A classified State Department cable from October 2009 reveals that Iran is one of North Korea’s key missile customers.

The cable, made public by Wikileaks, states that since the 1980s North Korea has provided Iran with complete Scud missiles and production technology used in developing 620-mile-range Nodong missiles.

Additionally, North Korea also supplied Iran with a medium-range missile called the BM-25 that is a variant of the North Korean Musudan missile.

“This technology would provide Iran with more advanced missile technology than currently used in its Shahab-series of ballistic missiles and could form the basis for future Iranian missile and [space launch vehicle] designs.”

“Pyongyang’s assistance to Iran’s [space launch vehicle] program suggests that North Korea and Iran may also be cooperating on the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”

A second cable from September 2009 states that Iran’s Safir rocket uses missile steering engines likely provided by North Korea that are based on Soviet-era SS-N-6 submarine launched ballistic missiles.

That technology transfer was significant because it has allowed Iran to develop a self-igniting missile propellant that the cable said “could significantly enhance Tehran’s ability to develop a new generation of more-advanced ballistic missiles.”

“All of these technologies, demonstrated in the Safir [space launch vehicle] are critical to the development of long-range ballistic missiles and highlight the possibility of Iran using the Safir as a platform to further its ballistic missile development.”

A spokesman for Spain’s mission to the United Nations, currently in charge of the world body’s sanctions committee, said the committee has not received any communications from the United States since Spain took charge of the panel in January.

Security and arms control analysts said the North Korean missile components shipped to Iran highlight the deficiencies of the Iran framework agreement announced earlier this month.

The framework is under fire from Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday held a meeting to discuss legislation that would require the administration to submit a final Iran nuclear agreement to the Senate.

The committee voted to approve a bipartisan bill that would require Senate approval for any final Iran nuclear  agreement. The legislation would block the administration from lifting any sanctions on Iran until after Congress approves the formal accord that is to be worked out before June 30. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation if it passes both the House and Senate.

Joseph DeTrani, former director of the National Counterproliferation Center, a U.S. intelligence agency, said North Korea has maintained “close and long term” relations with Iran on the transfer of missiles and missile-related technology.

“U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit this type of activity, and continued missile-related transfers from North Korea to Iran would be in violation of these Security Council resolutions,” said DeTrani, a former CIA officer and special envoy to North Korea nuclear talks.

“The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), comprised of over 100 countries, was established to monitor such activities and assist with the interdiction of such proscribed transfers. To date, PSI has been relatively successful,” he added.

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton also said the missile transfers would violate U.N. sanctions on both Iran and North Korea.

U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang in 2009 for North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests prohibit the export of missiles and related technology.

“And if the violation was suppressed within the U.S. government, it would be only too typical of decades of practice,” Bolton said. “Sadly, it would also foreshadow how hard it would be to get honest reports made public once Iran starts violating any deal.”

Bolton, who also served as undersecretary of state for arms control in the George W. Bush administration, said he remembers the difficulty of getting the bureaucracy to use the word “violation” instead of diplomatic euphemisms such as “non-compliance.”

Former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz also criticized the administration for not publicizing the sanctions violations.

“While it may seem outrageous that the Obama administration would look the other way on missile shipments from North Korea to Iran during the Iran nuclear talks, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Fleitz said.

“The Obama administration has excluded all non-nuclear Iranian belligerent and illegal activities from its nuclear diplomacy with Iran,” he said. “Iran’s ballistic missile program has been deliberately left out of the talks even though these missiles are being developed as nuclear weapon delivery systems.”

Fleitz said Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism also has been excluded from the nuclear talks, along with Iranian aggression and subversion in the Middle East.

“Since the administration has overlooked this long list of belligerent and illegal Iranian behavior during the Iran talks, it’s no surprise it ignored missile shipments to Iran from North Korea,” he added.

Thomas Moore, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee arms control specialist, said if the recent missile component transfers are confirmed, “it certainly points out the glaring omission present in the Iran deal: the total lack of anything on its missile threat.”

“If true, allowing proliferation with no response other than to lead from behind or reward it, let alone bury information about it, is to defeat the object and purpose of the global nonproliferation regime—the only regime Obama may end up changing in favor of those in Tehran, Havana and Pyongyang,” Moore said.

Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, also said the latest report of North Korean missile technology exports to Iran “more than suggests why the administration had to back away from securing any ballistic missile limits in its negotiations” with Tehran.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did not return emails seeking comment.

We Hacked North Korea With Balloons and USB Drives

An airborne challenge to Kim Jong Un’s information monopoly

Former North Korean defectors release balloons containing one-dollar banknotes, radios, CDs and leaflets denouncing the North Korean regime near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, on January 15. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

PAJU, South Korea — At the base of a mountain almost two miles from the North Korean border, the giant helium balloons slowly float upward, borne by a stiff, cold wind. These are not balloons in the conventional sense—the transparent, cylindrical tubes covered in colorful Korean script are more than 20 feet in length and each carries three large bundles wrapped in plastic. The characters painted on one of the balloons reads, “The regime must fall.”

The launch site is at the confluence of the Imjin and Han Rivers, which form the border with North Korea. From here, it’s possible to see the Potemkin village constructed on the shores across the river. The picturesque agrarian hamlet is really just a series of uninhabited sham structures, which contrast sharply with the bustle and industry of the South Korean side. Using binoculars we can see people “walking” back and forth and pretending to till the land despite below-freezing temperatures.We’re here to hack the North Korean government’s monopoly of information above the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean dictatorship continues to be one of the most totalitarian regimes on the planet. While other regimes oppress their dissidents and censor the Internet, North Korea has no dissidents and no connection to the outside world. It has no Internet. The Kim family rules with absolute authority, arbitrarily imprisoning or executing anyone who stands in their way. The regime goes even further; not only is the offender imprisoned, but entire generations of his family are also sent to the gulags. The embargo of information into and out of the country has forced human rights groups to be creative in their methods of reaching North Korean citizens.

The balloons rise and drift toward the border dividing democratic South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian regime in the north. Each balloon carries a bundle containing DVDs, USBs, transistor radios, and tens of thousands of leaflets printed with information about the world outside North Korea. Once the balloons travel far enough north, a small timer will break open the sturdy plastic bags and shower the contents of the packages over the countryside. The text printed on the leaflets is changed from launch to launch; the leaflets we are using today contain a cartoon depicting Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle as well as pro-democracy and human rights literature.

In preparation for Wednesday’s launch, a group of men and women, most defectors themselves, put together the precious cargo the balloons carry. This group is part of an organization called Fighters for a Free North Korea, and their leader is Park Sang Hak, a defector and son of a former North Korean spy who escaped 15 years ago by swimming across the river. Park has since dedicated his life to fighting for freedom in his homeland. That dedication has earned him awards (he received the Human Rights Foundation’s Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent last year) as well as attempts on his life.

In 2011, a North Korean assassin traveled to Seoul and tried to kill Park with a poison needle hidden inside a pen. The South Korean National Intelligence Service found out about the plan to murder Park, whom the Pyongyang regime has designated “Enemy Zero,” and tipped him off before he went to meet the would-be killer.

Park Sang Hak, a North Korean defector and chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, releases a helium balloon filled with anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets near the border with North Korea, in 2008. (Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak)

Undaunted, Park continued his efforts to offer support to the countrymen he had left behind. He realized that although the government tightly controlled everything that came into the country on the ground, the sky remained free. Park decided this would be his way of smuggling his message across the border.

This is how we found ourselves at a mountaintop an hour and a half outside of Seoul in 15-degree-Fahrenheit weather. We had been preparing for weeks in secret in order to stay off the South Korean government’s radar, after our previous launch attempt was thwarted by South Korean police forces.

In June of last year, at a different border site, word got out about the effort, which was to be the first time that a foreign NGO had collaborated directly in such an activity. Two days before the anticipated launch date, the North Korean government issued a warning through its propaganda outlet, threatening, “[I]f you so much as haunt [the launch site] with your presence and act as human shields for refugees who have already been sentenced to death, we will kill you.”

We chose to ignore this inflammatory rhetoric, which is typical of the regime, and pressed on. The morning of the launch, however, the North Korean government issued a second warning, this time from the Command of the Korean People’s Army, saying the launch “reminds one of a puppy knowing no fear of a tiger.” This threat was taken so seriously by the South Korean government that its security forces mobilized to stop us.

On the day of the launch, 300 uniformed South Korean policemen swarmed the site, preventing us from achieving our goal. Park attempted to drive to another launch site, but he was stopped and taken to a nearby police station, where he was detained for six hours and then released. The episode underlined how many South Koreans regard the human rights struggle in the North as merely a distraction and an annoyance.

So what do these balloons carry that is dangerous enough to the North Korean government to warrant an attempted assassination and multiple public death threats to an international NGO? All of the goods carried by the balloons are illegal inside North Korea, but the regime consistently names one item in their threats to Park and his group: the pro-democracy leaflets.

The North Korean government dreads subversive information. For decades, the regime has controlled all information entering the country. While the government still has a monopoly over information dissemination within North Korea, cracks are beginning to show. Many North Koreans now have access to smuggled DVDs and USBs loaded with videos. They are seeing the world outside the North, and it doesn’t match up to the dictatorship’s lies and propaganda. Shows such as Desperate Housewives and The Mentalist, and films like Bad Boys, all of which defectors tell us are very popular in the North, provide a wildly different alternative to their daily lives.

Slowly, piercing the information blockade is helping to expose the fallibility of the North Korean state. Kim Jong Un’s government, just like the governments of his father and grandfather before him, is engineered to make North Korean citizens dependent on the state for everything. However, the famine of the 1990s, in which over a million North Koreans starved to death, forced people to depend less on the state for survival. The black market, fueled by smuggling, began to gain momentum.

Smuggling is the only way to bring information and technology to the North Korean people, and it is punishable by death. DVDs, USBs, and even laptops are making their way over the Chinese border into the hands of North Koreans, helped along by NGOs based in South Korea. Some groups engage directly in smuggling activities to provide information and equipment, others use short- and medium-wave radio broadcasts, and Park Sang Hak uses balloons and other creative methods of sending help over the border.

South Koreans and North Korean defectors hold a banner that reads, “Pyongyang citizens living in the South and the North, Let’s unite, break Kim Jong Un’s three generations hereditary regime and move a date up for recovery of Pyongyang.” (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)

These groups, however, are in the midst of a crisis. Finding support, especially for the more aggressive methods, is difficult within South Korea, as South Koreans fear antagonizing their distant relatives in the North. Until this year, the U.S. government provided support for these groups through the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department’s DRL programs. The majority of this funding however, has been cut in the last year. A remarkable opportunity now exists, given the funding gap, to build peer-to-peer networks between Korean defectors and worldwide allies willing to stand against despotism. Radio transmission is especially costly, and one group we visited in Seoul won’t be able to afford to produce its programming after March of this year.

These groups struggle in silence as the international press creates a media circus around Dennis Rodman and his “friendship” with Kim Jong Un. His antics feed into the popular perception of the regime as a bizarre place where bad things happen as opposed to one of the world’s cruelest tyrannies, being challenged by a handful of civil society organizations with combined annual budgets totaling no more than $1 million. And the North, with its nuclear hardware, concentration camps, and totalitarian control over its people, is being challenged with freedom of expression and the power of ideas. In the end, we believe ideas will win.