On Tuesday, a North Korean freighter coming from Cuba and traveling through the Panama Canal was found to have suspected missile system components on board. The Chong Chon Gang, painted with a North Korean flag, was stopped and searched after a tip suggested that it was smuggling narcotics.
According to the Washington Post, Hugh Griffiths, a maritime arms trafficking expert based at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, had been “monitoring the vessel since 2010, when it was detained by Ukrainian authorities who discovered small-arms ammunition, light weapons and narcotics on board.”
Ukraine continues to play an important role in the North Koreans arms network, as confirmed in a recent UN Security Council Report issued on June 11, 2013. Ex-DPRK trade official Choi Yong-hyuk, head researcher at the Policy Research Institute in Seoul, has a close relative who is based in Ukraine and remains in charge of missile sales at Office 99.
Office 99 is the DPRK section that oversees arms trade activities, and falls under the auspices of the Second Economy Committee (see here for more details).
Until around 1997, North Korea sold missiles to countries in the Middle East. After this time, this practice came to a halt: there were many faults in the North Korean manufactured equipment, and according to the terms of the contracts, North Korea had to provide free repairs. This proved to be costly.
Interestingly, the Cuban statement issued today regarding the seized equipment said: “In addition, the above mentioned vessel transported 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons… all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century – to be repaired and returned to Cuba.” (italics added)
With the constant demand for repairs, the North Koreans felt that they were not profiting enough from this trade. Mr Choi’s relative therefore began to stop selling equipment that the DPRK had to guarantee repairs for, and began to collaborate with businesses in Ukraine.
These relationships were cemented during the process of Ukrainian independence and the collapse of the USSR.
Playing the role of a middle-man, he was responsible for selling Ukrainian missile components and equipment to non-governmental groups in the Middle East.