Increased international efforts to detect illegal arms smuggling has found, not unexpectedly, that North Korea was continuing to smuggle weapons to foreign customers do business despite the many trade sanctions placed against them. Since 2016, by combining data from a larger number of sources and relying on increase American scrutiny of North Korean trade in general it was discovered that North Korean weapons were being smuggled into a lot of places where they had not been seen, or perhaps noticed before. One of the surprising customers was Egypt, which already manufacturers many of the small arms and ammunition that North Korea is now offering at low prices and no questions asked. Egypt was recently caught arranging for the stealthy delivery of North Korean RPG rockets. The details of this case are not yet fully known because Egypt and the United States continue to disagree on who was behind an attempt to smuggle 30,000 advanced (PG-7) RPG rockets to Egypt. These RPG rockets seized on a ships moving through the Suez Canal in August 2016 but the matter was kept quiet as investigators sought to find out who did what and why.
In an effort to get answers the Americans withheld $300 million in military aid for Egypt as an incentive to cooperate with the investigation into what was really going on. This helped somewhat but did not get all the answers. Much was already known. This all began when American intelligence spotted the North Korean cargo ship (pretending to be Cambodian) and its 23 man North Korean crew as it left North Korea for Egypt. The ship spent most of the voyage with its AIS (location transponder) illegally turned off. The U.S. suspected arms smuggling and notified Egypt to stop and search the ship before it went through the canal.
That search quickly found hidden (under a layer of iron ore) 30,000 PG-7 rockets (6,000 of them unassembled). Further investigation found that the RPG ammo had been ordered by an Egyptian businessman apparently for the Egyptian Army. That was the conclusion of the inspectors because the PG-7 rockets were old and not as effective as the most recent models, that can do some serious damage, or even disable, the most modern tanks (like the M1 or Merkava).
Egypt has been buying weapons from North Korea (legally and apparently illegally) for decades and still has an embassy in North Korea. Older RPG rockets are for sale on the black market for under $10 each and these would be used for training soldiers or, if obtained by rebel or Islamic terror groups, for combat. The Egyptian businessman who technically owned these rockets had been involved in such deals before and since buying weapons from North Korea became illegal (because of UN sanctions) the use of such middlemen has become common in countries that still tolerate illegal trade with North Korea. That Egypt is still involved with this sort of thing says more of the high levels of corruption in Egypt that with any support for North Korea. These deals involve North Korea selling the weapons at a substantial discount and that usually means the middleman can sell the weapons to a government (or anyone else) at a much higher price. This includes large payoffs for the middleman and the government officials involved. American auditors have found a lot of American military aid to Egypt ending up financing some of these corrupt deals.
In addition to the Egyptian case North Korea has been found using its commercial and diplomatic contacts throughout Africa to find buyers and arrange clandestine shipments. Because of sanctions on North Korean use of the international banking system Africa is particularly attractive. That’s because of the rampant illegal trade in valuable ores and gems there and the many outlaw traders that buy and sell the stuff. Thus North Korea often takes payment in these rare commodities and then converts these items to cash which is smuggled back into North Korea. North Korean arms merchants can do business in any of the many areas in Africa with lax law enforcement for clandestine smuggling and financial activities. That apparently includes Egypt. This is all the more important because since early 2016 China has shut down a lot of those North Korean activities within China. The North Koreans were apparently quick to adapt. The Egyptian deal was arranged before the latest round of banking sanctions hit North Korea and it is unclear if the Egyptian government is still tolerating this sort of thing or not. American investigators would like access to Egyptian businessmen and officials to ask some more questions about this and Egypt is not eager to cooperate.
Clandestine weapons exports to Africa is nothing new for North Korea. For example a 2013 a photo from North Korea showed an Il-76 transport in military colors. This was odd because while the North Korean state airline operates three IL-76s, the North Korean Air Force was never known to do so. The IL-76 in the picture appeared to be a civilian version with a military paint job. At the time it was unclear what the North Koreans were up to, although it was known that North Korea had used Il-76s in the past for arms smuggling and shady business in general. So having one pass for a military transport was probably part of some new smuggling scheme. Similar to the older American C-141, over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years. Nearly a hundred Il-76s were exported so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya, and Syria. Most of these countries are willing to tolerate, for a price, the use of their Il-76s for some profitable illegal trade. Il-76s and other Cold War era transports are still frequently in Africa, often working for smugglers of one item or another.
This was not the first time the North Koreans were caught using air transport for smuggling. For example, in late 2009, the U.S. alerted Thailand that a Georgian Il-76 transport, flying from North Korea, would stop to refuel in Thailand, had false documentation, and other problems worth looking into. When the transport arrived and Thai police checked, they found that the manifest listed the cargo as oil drilling machinery but the stuff was actually 35 tons of weapons. The crew was arrested (for carrying weapons and false documents) and the cargo was removed to a safe location for more thorough inspection. After going through all the containers (mostly wooden boxes marked "oil drilling equipment"), the Thais found ballistic missile components, apparently for North Korea's most recent, 6,000 kilometer range, missile. These were apparently headed for Iran (which can pay big bucks for such stuff and North Korea needs the money). The documents found on the transport, and interrogations of the five man crew, revealed that North Korea went to great lengths to try and hide who owned the aircraft, what the cargo was, and where it was headed. Iran continues to maintain trade relations, often illegal, with North Korea. Even though Iran got a treaty in 2015 to lift most of the trade sanctions it was long under the Iranians continue to have need of its smugglers to support its illegal activities (like supporting Islamic terrorism internationally.)
The Il-76 is the air equivalent of the old “tramp steamer” (elderly cargo ship favored by smugglers because of low cost but being reliable enough to deliver the goods). The Il-76 is certainly old and cheap (often available for as little as a million dollars) but reliability is becoming more of a problem so crews are paid well, in a similar fashion to those piloting drug smuggling planes in the Americas. .
North Korea has had to rely more on air transport for its arms smuggling because since 2012 there has been an increasingly effective crackdown on their use of merchant ships for smuggling. Some cases became famous, like the 2013 incident where a North Korean freighter was discovered off Panama carrying Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) buried under a cargo of sugar. This turned out to be part of regular trade between the two countries. It was all unraveled when Panamanian authorities conducted a search of the North Korean freighter because of an American tip that the North Korean ship was carrying illegal cargo. A Panamanian warship passed near the North Korean vessel approaching the Panama Canal and noted that the North Koreans had turned off their tracking devices. This is what drug smugglers often do and the Panamanians forced the North Korean ship to stop so they could search it. The 35 man crew tried to resist the search and scuttle the ship but the heavily armed police made it clear that this might just get a lot of the North Korean sailors killed. The North Korean captain later tried to commit suicide. The ship was brought into a Panamanian port for a search and the crew were arrested.
Further investigation showed that for years a North Korean freighter would show up in Cuba every three of four months. Often the North Korean ships travelled (in violation of international law) with its tracker turned off. This tracker is the AIS (Automated Identification System) and was originally developed to make it easier to track ships at sea. AIS is essentially an automatic radio beacon (transponder) that, when it receives a signal from a nearby AIS equipped ship, responds with the ship's identity, course, and speed. This is meant to enable AIS ships to avoid collisions with each other. Most large ships also carry INMARSAT, which enables shipping companies keep track of their vessels, no matter where they are on the planet. INMARSAT uses a system of satellites which transmit AIS-like signals to anywhere on the oceans. It only costs a few cents to send an INMARSAT signal to one of your ships, and a few cents more to receive a reply. The trackers, especially AIS, are essential to prevent collision while GPS and INMARSAT are crucial to avoid running into reefs, rocks, or (in bad weather) coastline. Only smugglers will turn these devices off, and this is often discovered when navies spot one of these ships on the high seas.
North Korean cargo ships are often found “running dark.” The North Koreans will turn on their devices when entering foreign ports, to avoid problems with the local authorities. The trips to Cuba were long believed to be some kind of smuggling operation, but since Cuba had little of military value for North Korea, no one looked too closely. Now it appears that Cuba was, at least in this case, trading sugar for repair services (on the missiles, the jet fighters and their engines, which wear out quickly). Cuba may also have been selling sugar as well as surplus weapons. Whatever North Korea and Cuba are saying, it is still in violations of the sanctions against North Korea, although North Korea insists that it is not. Besides, North Korea might have bought the old missiles and jets for their own use. North Korea has been caught buying MiG-21s illegally since the 1990s.
North Korea uses the same “running dark” tactics for its illegal airfreight deliveries to African nations. This is easier to pull off in Africa, which is, unlike the rest of the world, still lacking in an air traffic control system over most air space. Now more resources will have to be devoted to looking for illegal air traffic over Africa as well as monitoring ships that that are running dark and might have illegal North Korean cargo aboard.