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North Korea is selling arms and breaking sanctions – does anyone care?

Arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Libya, and making huge fuel transfers on the high seas – it embarrasses Trump, but westerners can’t really object.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 March 2019
April 1, 2017: a tank from the tank units of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea recently attending the Korean People's Army Tank Crews' Competition-2017.
Built by North Korea, driven by Houthis
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Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A new UN report confirms that North Korea is coming off best in its dealings with Donald Trump. The US president has little to show for his trips to south-east Asia, while the North Koreans are mainly getting what they want – international status while busting sanctions and selling arms. But how much is anyone else bothered?

Uncovering the murkier details of the international arms trade is never easy: one of the best books on the subject, Andrew Feinstein’s ‘The Shadow War’, is all too appropriately named. The more controversial elements quite often only come to light by accident, sometimes through courts of law – the Lockheed case back in the 1970s being a prime example.

Occasionally the lid lifts in other ways. The latest annual report from the UN’s Panel of Experts monitoring group on North Korea is one such. It reveals that two North Korean government departments, the Ministry of Military Equipment (MME) and the Korean Mining Development Trading Organisation, have sold a range of conventional weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as customers in Sudan and Libya.

The weapons intended for Yemen range from light weapons such as Kalashnikovs through general-purpose machine guns, anti-tank missiles and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles right up to tanks and ballistic missiles. The transit route has been primarily through a Syrian-registered company, the Consulting Bureau for Marketing, headed by a Syrian arms trader, Hussein al-Ali.

The UN panel reports on direct connections between the Libyan Ministry of Defence and the North Korean MME, with a senior Libyan official noting that the North Korean government was “in the process of preparing the sales/purchase agreement for the required defence systems and ammunition needed to maintain stability in Libya”, ironically a country made seriously unstable following the western intervention and fall of Gaddafi in 2011.

The 378-page report also highlights North Korea’s success in other activities, with the panel emphasising that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes “remain intact” and that it “continues to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal”.

The revelations will not surprise arms trade researchers, but there are two elements that have an added political relevance. One is that this sensitive information has been supplied to the panel by an unnamed UN member state. The second is that it essentially confirms what many political commentators accept: in the US-North Korean negotiations it is Trump who has been found wanting.

That does leave the matter of the unnamed UN member state, and the presumption here is that this is yet one more effort by Vladimir Putin’s people to embarrass Trump. Not only does North Korea continue on its way by selling arms but actually manages to engineer that “massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers”.

There may be good reason for concern over this element of the arms black market, and what is happening certainly breaches UN sanctions. But the problem, as so often, is that many UN member states will not mind. If the UN report is correct, the Houthi rebels in Yemen are getting smuggled arms from North Korea but at the same time the Saudis are getting huge supplies of arms and equipment from western states including the US, UK and France, with personnel from these countries integral to the conduct of the Saudi offensive. Western protests about North Korea’s behaviour are all too likely to be met with hollow laughter.

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US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

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