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North Korean Arms Shipment included Man-portable Air Defense Systems

North Korean Arms Shipment included Man-portable Air Defense Systems

Author: Monica Amarelo

Type: Release

WASHINGTON DC -- The Federation of American Scientists has learned that a cargo plane loaded with weapons from North Korea that was grounded in Bangkok in December contained man-portable air defense systems. According to a Thai report to the UN Security Council, the cargo contained five crates of MANPADS SAMs.

North Korea as a source of illicit MANPADS poses a significant challenge for policymakers since few if any of the diplomatic carrots and sticks used to secure missiles elsewhere would be effective vis-a-vis the Hermit Kingdom.  

It is possible that the missiles were manufactured in North Korea, which has produced the Chinese HN-5 and the Soviet SA-14 and SA-16 under license, and the Soviet SA-7and US Stinger missile, which it reverse-engineered from missile technology acquired from Egypt in the 1970s andfrom the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, respectively.

Another possibility is that the missiles were foreign-madeand were transiting through, or were re-exported from, North Korea.  This scenario could have profound implications, depending on the origin and age of the missiles.  

Newly manufactured foreign missiles would suggest a recent government-to-government sale to North Korea – an egregious violation of the spirit if not the letter of international agreements on controlling MANPADS – or diversion from government depot, which would likely be indicative of serious shortcomings in stockpile security policies andpractices. 

Interdiction efforts associated with UN Security Council Resolution 1874 will likely make it more difficult to traffic in North Korean weaponry, but shoulder-fired missiles are easy to smuggle, and adequately screening the contents of every plane and ship departing from North Korea would be impossible.  The best that can reasonably be hoped for is that vigilance by North Korea’s neighbors and robust patrolling of international waters will limit North Korea’s arms smuggling in the near term, and that prioritization of the MANPADS proliferation threat by the six-party nations in negotiations with North Korean officials will yield a longer term solution. 

It is possible that the Iranians had ordered the weapons not for their own use but for their proxies in Lebanon or elsewhere.  Foreign missiles would allow the Iranians to provide like-minded armed groups with much-needed air defense systems while maintaining plausible deniability regarding their role in the transfer.  A similar strategy was pursued by the United State during the clandestine campaign to arm and train the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation.

If the North Korean weapons were bound for Iran, they may have been intended for a similar purpose.

To speak with Matt Schroeder, manager of the FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project, please contact Monica Amarelo, 202-454-4680, [email protected]

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