Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo:  AFP/North Korean Central News Agency
Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo: AFP / North Korean Central News Agency

North Korea’s failed missile launch on April 16, only a day after the reclusive regime rolled out its big guns in a huge parade in the capital Pyongyang, may have come as a sigh of relief to many Western observers worried about the increasingly belligerent behavior of one of the world’s last pariah regimes.

It is still not clear what type of missile malfunctioned, but it exploded within seconds of being launched from a test site on the northeastern coast of the Korean peninsula. The relief may be short-lived, though, as the missile arsenal displayed the day before showed that Pyongyang has developed a wide range of new missiles beyond the one that sputtered and exploded.

The most advanced of those missiles, known as the Taepodong 2, has a potential range of 6,700-9,000 kilometers that could conceivably reach the west coast of the United States if fully developed. North Korea’s expanding missile reach is known to be a driving force behind US President Donald Trump administration’s rising strategic threats against Pyongyang.

Years of international trade sanctions, near-economic collapse and even widespread famine have failed to hamper the country’s missile development programs, which are geared for both preemptive defense and export.

Despite United Nations-imposed bans on military equipment exports, North Korea has earned and is still earning substantial revenue from the sale of missile components and related technology overseas.

It is widely believed that those exports have kept Kim Jong-un’s regime afloat and are the financial source of his more menacing nuclear program. Pyongyang’s military equipment and missile customers over the years have included Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Angola, Vietnam and Myanmar.

In more recent times, however, North Korea has lost some of its most important missile customers, including Pakistan, which moved closer to the United States after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Libya, whose long-time leader Muammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011, and Syria, which is being torn apart by civil war.

The UAE was apparently not satisfied with the quality of North Korea’s Hwasong missiles, which they reportedly left to rust in a warehouse after replacing them with US-made missiles. Earlier missile development cooperation with Angola and Vietnam has also ceased as those two countries have also distanced themselves diplomatically from North Korea.

Submarine-launched ballistic missiles and what appeared to be land-based medium to long range Pukguksong-2, or KN-15, missiles were shown for the first time during the April 15 parade in Pyongyang. A variant of the latter was fired in February when Trump was meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at his golf resort in Florida.

That successfully launched missile reached a height of 550 kilometers before falling into the sea, 500 kilometers east of the Korean coast.

North Korea began producing surface-to-air missiles more than 50 years ago with the help of Soviet technicians. But those were quite rudimentary and it was not until Pyongyang signed a defense agreement with China in 1971 that the industry really took off.

A fire drill of ballistic rockets by Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force. Photo: North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via Reuters.

North Korea gradually became capable of developing and fine-tuning its growing arsenal of missiles with the help of some rather unexpected non-communist partners.

Egypt was first to provide assistance. Pyongyang first helped Cairo in the war against Israel in 1973 by providing pilots to its air force. In return, Egypt transferred a small number of Soviet-supplied FROG-7B missiles and launchers to North Korea.

In the early 1980s, Egypt provided North Korea with Soviet-made SCUD B missiles, which were not test-fired but rather used as models for reverse-engineering in a string of new defense factories that Pyongyang had established.

Pakistan was next. In the early 1970s, Islamabad approached Pyongyang to buy conventional weapons at a time when tension was escalating with India as East Pakistan was breaking away and eventually became Bangladesh.

More sophisticated weaponry soon appeared on Pakistan’s shopping list, and the modified version of North Korea’s Rodong missile known as Gauri was first tested in April 1998. Cooperation with Iran led to the development of its Shehab missile system, which was based on similar designs.

More recently, North Korea and Myanmar’s then military junta signed a defense agreement in Pyongyang in November 2008, which included missile development programs. The status of that cooperation is unclear, however. In January 2012, then president Thein Sein — a former military general — declared that allegations of a such a relationship with North Korea were “unfounded.”

Current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) talks with then Border Affairs Minister Major General Thein Htay (R) in a August 20, 2011 file photo. Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win

In July 2013, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Lieutenant General Thein Htay, the head of Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries, for his alleged involvement in the illicit trade of North Korean armaments to Myanmar.

The sanctions order said: “The international community has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation activity, most recently in UN Security Council Resolutions 2087 and 2094. North Korea’s arms trade provides it with an important source of revenue to expand and enhance its proscribed nuclear and missile programs, which are a threat to international peace and security.”

The US government, which at the time was restoring relations with Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government in Naypyidaw, added diplomatically that there was no evidence to suggest that this was official Myanmar policy.

Whatever the current status of North Korea and Myanmar’s missile development program, the loss of old customers in the Middle East has prompted Pyongyang to focus on Southeast Asia, and apparently Naypyidaw in particular, for new sales.

Diplomats and analysts remain skeptical, however. According to well-placed military sources, KOMID, or the Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation – a state-owned entity that is the main exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles as well as conventional weapons – appointed Kim Chol-nam as its new representative in Myanmar in late 2016.

Previously based in Beijing, he has been blacklisted by the US and mentioned in UN Security Council reports for his involvement in weapons trading, including the sale of missile parts and technology.

Whatever the current status of North Korea and Myanmar’s missile development program, the loss of old customers in the Middle East has prompted Pyongyang to focus on Southeast Asia, and apparently Naypyidaw in particular, for new sales.

Myanmar is also believed to owe Pyongyang substantial funds for previous military assistance, which means that relations with North Korea, despite assurances to the contrary made by Naypyidaw authorities to the US and others, are likely still alive and well.

Even if the April 16 missile test was a spectacular failure, the public display of old and new missiles at this month’s Pyongyang parade shows that North Korea still possesses some of the most developed missile systems in the world.

Kim Jong-un clearly sees such advanced weaponry as life insurance for his regime, as well as its most important source of foreign exchange. The hard truth is that North Korea has only limited export commodities other than weapons that its foreign trading partners are interested in buying.

Bertil Lintner has reported on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction for Jane’s Defense, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal, and is the author of Dear Leader, Great Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan

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