North Korean Missile Exports

During the past decade, U.S. intelligence has watched North Korea conduct a booming missile trade with Iran, Egypt and Syria. Washington is now urging Pyongyang to put the brakes on its missile program, and to halt all missile-related exports to the Middle East.

One of Washington’s biggest concerns is the transfer of production technology. “It’s one thing to give a man a fish, it’s another to teach him how to fish,” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report. Another U.S. official who tracks the spread of missiles says that it is increasingly difficult to know exactly what technology is being transferred to whom. “North Korea’s missile trade is like a localized cancer that starts to spread,” he says, “first you see the missile sales, but then it spreads to services and production technology and becomes harder and harder to track.”

Since the late 1980s, North Korea has sold hundreds of Scud-type missiles and Scud production technology to Iran, Syria and Egypt. Pyongyang is now actively marketing its latest missile, the Nodong-I, to these same countries. The breadth and depth of these sales can be difficult to track. “We see Scud and Nodong marketing all the time, but sometimes we don’t know what version of the missiles is being offered,” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report. Scud B-s can carry nuclear and chemical warheads 300 kilometers, Scud-Cs can fly 500 kilometers, and the Nodong-I can fly 1,000 kilometers.

U.S. officials especially want to stop North Korea from selling the Nodong-I. Testifying before Congress in 1993, CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) Director James Woolsey warned that with the Nodong, North Korea could reach Japan; Iran could reach Israel; and Libya could reach U.S. bases and allied capitals in the Mediterranean region. In other words, Pyongyang’s continued missile proliferation would threaten both American and allied security interests.

But getting North Korea to kick its missile habit will not be easy. Its exports to Iran, Egypt and Syria now bring in foreign exchange and bartered goods that Pyongyang desperately needs to support a steadily shrinking economy. “We are at the beginning stages of our missile dialogue,” explains a U.S. official, “and naturally they want compensation for anything they don’t do.”


Egypt owes almost all of its progress in missiles to North Korea. After more than 15 years of help from Pyongyang, Cairo can now produce its own version of the Soviet Scud-B. Cairo is also developing a more advanced Scud-C version that could threaten all of Israel and target cities in Libya, Syria and Sudan.

Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence detected several shipments of North Korean missile supplies to Egypt. According to a CIA report quoted in the Washington Times in June, Pyongyang has made at least seven shipments of ingredients for Scud-C missiles, including steel sheets and other materials and equipment. According to U.S. officials, Egypt is rapidly approaching success on the Scud-C. “It’s safe to assume that Egypt has successfully enhanced the range…” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report. The transfers took place in March and April and the CIA was quoted as saying that the imports “could allow Egypt to begin Scud-C series production.”


Iran has been the main customer and financier of North Korea’s missile effort. During the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s, Tehran quickly depleted its small supply of Soviet-made Scuds purchased from Libya. In search of a new supplier, Iran found North Korea. Tehran agreed to help finance Pyongyang s missile effort in exchange for Scud technology and an option to buy North Korean Scuds as soon as they dropped off the production line.

Iran got its first Scud-Bs in late 1987 and by February 1988, approximately 100 missiles had been delivered. Press reports in 1991 claimed that Iran had then ordered an additional 200 Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs. U.S. intelligence started to discover shipments of Scud-Cs from Pyongyang to Iran in early 1991, and in May 1991, Iran flight-tested what U.S. intelligence identified as a North Korean version of the Scud-C that flew 500 kilometers. In 1995, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released comments by the CIA to the effect that Iran had received at least four Scud TELs from North Korea. General Binford Peay, chief of the U.S. Central Command, said in April 1996 that Iran has also tried to buy a number of Nodong missiles from North Korea.

In addition to finished missiles, U.S. officials believe that Iran has also received a Scud factory and test facility as part of the deal. “Iran wants their own stuff now, to avoid dependence on outsiders for weapon supplies,” a State Department official tells the Risk Report. North Koreans reportedly helped build a large missile test facility at Emamshahr and a tracking facility at Tabas.

In addition to the imports, Iranian scientists and technicians have also enjoyed direct access to missile plants in North Korea. The director of Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO) visited North Korea in March 1993 just prior to the first Nodong missile test in May. The former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General Robert W. RisCassi, believes that the Nodong test may have been more a demonstration for foreign observers than a full evaluation of the missile’s technical performance. In February 1994, the North Korean air force commander led a delegation, which included military and nuclear experts, to Iran.


North Korea’s missile exports to Syria also worry U.S. officials, though most of the missile-related technology for Damascus is now being routed through Iran, a U.S. official tells the Risk Report.

In the late 1980s, Syria was looking for a partner to supply new surface-to-surface missiles and to help upgrade the Syrian arsenal. Syria first approached the Soviet Union, but was turned down. Damascus then turned to Pyongyang. Syria has since contracted to buy more than 150 North Korean Scud-Cs. In 1991, North Korea delivered an estimated 24 Scud-Cs and 20 mobile launchers, and in March 1992 shipped some unknown quantity of additional Scuds to Syria through Iran. Syria flight-tested Scud-C missiles in July 1992, in mid-1994, and in the summer of 1996. Israeli and Western officials also report that Syria is now building its own Scud-C missile factory with North Korean help.


Libya too is interested in North Korea as a missile supplier. Libya would like to acquire both Scud-Cs and the Nodong-I. According to press reports, Tripoli has already negotiated to buy the Nodong and is bargaining to buy the technology to produce it in Libya. In return for the imports, Libya would help finance North Korea’s missile effort. U.S. officials say there is “active cooperation” between North Korea and Libya that bears watching closely, but they believe that Libya is still a long way from success. “Libya is lame when it comes to missiles–anything they get ends up rusting in the desert,” says one U.S. official.

Potential for U.S. sanctions

Under the 1990 U.S. Missile Control Act, the President can impose sanctions when he determines that an organization has sold missiles or missile-related equipment or technology to a buyer that does not adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime, an effort by more than 30 countries to curb missile-related exports. U.S. sanctions can apply to a foreign exporter or importer acting wholly outside the United States.

If a company knowingly contributes to missile development in a non-MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) country, the United States may ban the company’s sales to the United States for at least two years if the contribution was substantial; ban the company from buying items on the U.S. Munitions List, which includes conventional arms and most missile-related components, for two years or more; or ban U.S. missile-related exports to the company for two years if the company sold less sensitive items. By definition, U.S. penalties apply to all subunits of a penalized entity.

U.S. agencies are now debating whether there is enough evidence of missile trade between Egypt and North Korea to impose penalties under U.S. law. So far, Washington has been loath to punish a friendly country such as Egypt. “Like China, Egypt is a very tough call because of its close relationship with the United States,” a U.S. official tells the Risk Report. “We probably won’t see anything move on this for a year,” another official says, “first we have the November elections, then new political appointments, and then we may get around to discussing events that happened last year.”

Though Washington has never penalized Egypt, the State Department has sanctioned North Korea, Syria and Iran for engaging in “missile proliferation activities.” In 1992, the United States imposed two-year sanctions against North Korea’s Lyongaksan Machineries and against the Equipment Export Corporation and Changgwang Credit Corporation. Sanctions were also imposed against Syria’s Scientific Research Center (CERS) and Syria’s Ministry of Defense, as well as Iran’s Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics. In May 1996, Washington imposed two-year sanctions against North Korea’s Changgwang Sinyong Corporation (aka the Korea Mining Development Trading Bureau) and against Iran’s State Purchasing Office and Iran’s Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics.