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How North Korea gets around global sanctions to manufacture its weapons


A ballistic missile fired by Russia on Ukraine's second-largest city was recently recovered and analyzed by a group specializing in such work. The Conflict Armament Research team, or CAR, found that the missile had actually been made by North Korea and included electronic parts from companies in many other countries, including China, Taiwan, Germany and the U.S., which raises the question - with so many sanctions against it, how is North Korea able to produce and move weapons around the world? We're joined by Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to the show.

ANDREW YEO: Thanks for having me on.

RASCOE: How telling is this report from CAR about North Korea's capacity to manufacture weapons?

YEO: We shouldn't be surprised about North Korea manufacturing weapons because this is something that they've been doing all throughout the Cold War. But I think what was surprising about the CAR report was that these components were sourced from countries in the West, including 75% from the United States. How are those getting into North Korea? That just highlights many of the holes, the problems that exist in the sanctions regime.

RASCOE: Do you have any theories for how North Korea is able to evade sanctions and get these parts? You know, are they just easily findable on the dark markets? I assume they're not going on Amazon.

YEO: You hit on one point - these black markets. That's certainly one place. But also, we have to think about the sanctions regime as a whole. So if you look at North Korea or the Korean Peninsula, you know, it borders China and Russia. And so that means if goods are getting through, they may just cross through China and Russia, and it becomes a question of sanctions enforcement. There are also illicit financial networks that North Koreans have that exist in Southeast Asia and Malaysia and Indonesia that have business transactions with nonstate actors. And it's through these, I think, illicit networks that North Korea is able to procure these different components from all around the world.

RASCOE: Is there a red line here in terms of what countries like China and Russia are willing to help supply to North Korea?

YEO: So in terms of China, their primary goal is to keep the status quo. They want North Korea to stay afloat. They prefer having a divided peninsula. The last thing they want is a unified Korea on South Korean terms that pushes a U.S. ally right up to their border. I think for the Chinese, it's mostly turning a blind eye. On the Russian side, the real question is, what sort of support are they giving North Koreans in terms of weapons? And if it's not weapons, is it support in terms of technology? We know that North Koreans want to upgrade their submarine fleet. They want to launch more satellites in space. They need the rocket technology. And so it's quite possible that the Russians may help them with all these things. Both for China and Russia, I don't think they want to see nuclear proliferation in East Asia, but they're very angry about the United States, and we're seeing these geopolitical divisions. And for those reasons, I do think that China and Russia are really giving North Korea cover these days.

RASCOE: You wrote recently about evidence that Hamas is also using weapons made in North Korea. Talk to me about how North Korea is exporting these weapons.

YEO: Yeah, so North Korea has had ties to Iran for decades. It's quite possible that through Iran, then, that these weapons may have gotten into the hands of Hamas. North Koreans have had ties to Hezbollah for decades, as well, too, so this isn't a new thing. If you think about North Korea's ideology - they talk about socialism or communism. During the Cold War, they had linkages to other small countries who wanted to gain independence. So it's about, you know, fighting imperialism, supporting other communist nations. In sub-Sahara Africa, North Koreans had ties with other countries like Angola, with Mozambique. And it's through some of those linkages that we see connections. But if we look at places like sub-Sahara Africa or other developing countries, that's where these black markets can emerge because states don't necessarily have the capacity to crack down and enforce sanctions that are levied against North Korea.

RASCOE: So bottom line, is there any value in these sanctions? And are there any other possible solutions?

YEO: First, I'll start with my personal opinion. I think having sanctions are better than not having them. And so sanctions have been really maligned these days. You'll hear many experts say that, you know, the sanctions regime is dead, or sanctions have had no effect. And we can see that North Korea's weapons program has grown since we've placed sanctions on North Korea, so some will say that sanctions have failed.

But at the same time, it - we don't know, though, if there weren't any sanctions, would North Koreans have acquired weapons even faster? So the solution isn't to get rid of sanctions. I think the solution is to try to rally countries to enforce the sanctions. But the Russians are going to be much harder to convince, obviously, because they want weapons from North Korea. And we've seen Putin even gift Kim Jong Un with a luxury vehicle - again, a direct violation of U.N. Sanctions Resolution 1718.

But I think for the Chinese - Chinese will always say that, well, we can't really control North Koreans, or we're not the solution to your problem. But given the amount of trade between North Korea and China - up to 90% of North Korea's trade is with China - I think there are ways where China can be more helpful.

So I think this year, as we see U.S.-China relations maybe slightly improve - I think in the early half of this year, maybe it might be worth talking to the Chinese again. And I hope that, at some point, we can have dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea again, as well. I don't think the situation is going to get any better as North Koreans continue to escalate their threats and continue to build the nuclear weapons program.

RASCOE: That's Andrew Yeo. He is a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings. Thank you so much for joining us.

YEO: Thanks for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.