Sunan Airport on the outskirts of North Korea's capital city, Pyongyang, is one of the world's bleaker transportation hubs, a collection of featureless concrete buildings distinguished only by a giant portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il gazing beatifically over shabby tarmac. Though unpicturesque, Sunan has been providing U.S. spy satellites with plenty of photo opportunities of late. On at least six occasions between April and early July, satellites spotted Iranian IL-76 cargo planes being loaded with wooden crates at Sunan. The frequency of the flights was unusual—normally no more than two flights a year take off from Sunan bound for Iran, according to U.S. government sources. But of greater concern was the size and shape of the crates, which indicated their contents. "It was cruise missiles," says an official in the Bush Administration. So sure was Washington of the jets' cargo that a complaint was lodged with China, which had allowed the flights to traverse its airspace to reach Iran.
That North Korea is selling arms abroad is no revelation. At least half a dozen countries—including Pakistan, Libya and Syria—are known to have purchased missiles from the rogue regime. But analysts and hard-liners in the U.S. are increasingly concerned that a desperate North Korea is spreading more than conventional arms—it is bartering its atomic weapons technology to Iran, creating an unholy, and far more dangerous, alliance between the two other members of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." "If I send a shipment of missile components on a plane, it doesn't mean I can't send with it a nuclear scientist with a hard drive," says Joseph Bermudez, a widely respected senior analyst at Jane's Information Group. Asserts Yossef Bodansky, director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare: "We know there is cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the nuclear field. The Iranians have a very comprehensive military nuclear program, and North Korea has been crucial in that." He cites Middle East intelligence sources that indicate the collaboration began in the mid-1990s.
Evidence is mounting, however, and not all of it is emanating from Bush Administration hard-liners. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a Paris-based Iranian dissident group, claims that North Korean scientists have been helping Iran build a nuclear facility that could be used to produce bombmaking material. Last December, NCRI blew the whistle on Iran's uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz, heightening international concern about the nature of Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Just how much nuclear help Iran is getting from North Korea isn't clear, says NCRI spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh. "We do know they have benefited," he says.
The U.S. is seeking additional proof—and is stepping up the pressure. Last week the U.S. State Department issued sanctions against a North Korean company, Changgwang Sinyong, along with five Chinese companies for selling arms technology to Iran last year. Meanwhile, Time has learned that U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton traveled to the Middle East last month in part to persuade several Arab nations to share intelligence with the U.S. on any suspicious traffic between Iran and North Korea. A U.S. official familiar with the trip says Middle Eastern diplomats are "concerned about North Korea exporting nuclear technology, know-how or fissile material to the region."
Analysts cite mutual interests that Iran and North Korea share as reason to suspect the two countries are collaborating. Intelligence sources say North Korea is working its way up the ladder of nuclear sophistication by acquiring the ability to make not just crude, clumsy A-bombs but also warheads small enough to fit atop its missile arsenal—and Pyongyang has already warned it would be willing to sell its expertise and nuclear material unless the U.S. delivers aid and security guarantees.
Arms sales are one of North Korea's few sources of hard currency to prop up its dysfunctional economy. Since the U.S. cut off oil shipments last year in an effort to pressure Kim to abandon his nukes, the North is also desperately short of fuel to keep electrical generators running and its ramshackle manufacturing economy ticking over. Analysts note that Iran has plenty of oil to trade for arms—along with a strong desire to acquire nuclear weapons, according to Bush administration hawks.
Uncovering and halting the proliferation of North Korean military hardware—perhaps even through a naval and aerial blockade—has become a key component of U.S. efforts to contain the nuclear threat. On his recent swing through the Middle East, Bolton made it clear to his hosts that the U.S. expected support for a plan to interdict North Korean arms shipments in the air and on the high seas. The controversial plan was first aired during a mid-June meeting in Madrid between representatives of 11 countries: the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain. North Korea's arms sales "finance their nuclear weapons program," says Bolton. "This is not money that goes to the starving people of North Korea."
But cordoning off the North presents legal and practical difficulties. One such obstacle: stopping ships on the high seas is questionable under international maritime law. The interception and boarding of a North Korean freighter in the Arabian Sea last December by Spanish patrol boats was not legally kosher, says a Western diplomat, despite the fact that the ship was found to be carrying North Korean-made Scud missiles to Yemen. The freighter was allowed to continue to its destination. Such interdictions will be "legally extremely complex, or just flat-out impossible," says the diplomat. However, a senior Bush Administration official says a proposed resolution before the U.N. Security Council might provide the cover needed to intercept shipments of missiles, which currently are legal to sell under international law. Even with wide-ranging support, stopping North Korea's arms traffic is dangerous. Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to attack South Korea if economic sanctions are imposed. In a typically bellicose statement sent to the U.N. Security Council on June 27, North Korea warned that U.S.-backed sanctions or blockades would "return the Korean peninsula to a state of war."
Nevertheless, ports around the globe are under U.S. pressure to tighten lax export controls that allow North Korea to source much of the high-tech machinery and parts it needs to build conventional arms—as well as weapons of mass destruction. Following revelations this year that some Japanese-based companies had exported items to the North that could have been used to build atom bombs, Japan has attempted to curtail some of its trade with the regime. On May 8, for example, Tokyo police raided a trading company called Meishin, which is run by members of Japan's North Korean community. Police accused Meishin of exporting transformers whose workaday function of regulating electrical current could have had useful applications in Pyongyang's uranium-enrichment program.
Meanwhile, the chief of Seishin, another Japanese company, was arrested along with four employees in June over the export of grinding machines called jet mills to Iran in 1999-2000. The company is also suspected of selling a jet mill to Pyongyang in the mid-1990s, according to the Japanese media, and police are investigating to determine whether any more recent sales were made to the North. Jet mills crush solid objects with highly pressurized air, and are most commonly used to pulverize plastics and pharmaceuticals. They can, however, also boost missile thrust by turning solid rocket fuel into fine particles, and are a restricted export under Japanese law.
Those who have witnessed North Korean arms-manufacturing operations are not surprised that Japan is a source of components. Kim Do Sung, who defected from the North in 1997 and now goes by a pseudonym to protect relatives back home, says he worked for nine years at Plant 38, a huge armaments factory in the city of Huichon in the northern province of Jaggang. Kim says the vast majority of the computer chips and electronic components used in missile guidance systems there were Japanese. He recalls unloading a shipment of equipment from Japan that was like a Christmas stocking for missile scientists, packed with oscilloscopes for analyzing trajectory, special welding machines to make the seamless joints needed in a missile body, computer chips and picture tubes used in monitors to track missile routes. "Without foreign parts we couldn't have made the missiles," says Kim. "That's the main reason North Korea needs dollars."
Japan isn't the only shopping mall for North Korea's military machine. Pyongyang gets precursor chemicals for its chemical and biological weapons programs from Europe, China and Russia, according to U.S. and South Korean officials. The freighter that took the North Korean Scuds to Yemen returned to the North via Germany, loading up with a shipment of sodium cyanide—a chemical used in metal plating and gold extraction that can also be used to make nerve gas. That shipment was blocked by German and French authorities. Germany also recently blocked a North Korea-bound consignment of aluminum tubes—key components for the centrifuges used to enrich uranium to bomb-grade quality. Chinese companies have sold specialty steel to North Korea for use in its missile program, as well as gyroscopes and accelerometers (used to measure vibration and g-force) that are potential missile parts. And Russian companies are suspected of selling high-strength maraging steel—used in missiles and centrifuge systems—to Pyongyang.
The trade is hard to stop because it's impossible to tell whether so-called "dual-use" material and equipment are destined for peaceful purposes. North Korea is skilled at using front companies with ever-changing names to disguise the real end user. As a Western diplomat notes, a machine for freeze-drying coffee can also be used to make anthrax spores. Says Akio Igarashi of the Tokyo-based watchdog Center for Information on Security Trade Control: "With North Korea you don't know if a lunch box you export will end up as a container for nuclear material."
Tokyo is trying nonetheless to enhance screening of exports to the North. Ferry runs between the two countries by the Mangyongbong-92, a North Korean ship suspected of transporting spies and drugs into Japan and weapons parts out, were suspended by Pyongyang in June after Tokyo deployed an army of inspectors to Niigata dockyards to scour the vessel. Japan has also blacklisted all trade with Pyongyang's Central Zoo, which is suspected of being a military front that uses its amusement-park rides as an excuse to procure electrical parts for missiles and other arms.
Ultimately, choking off North Korea's trade will depend upon participation of its two traditional allies and major trading partners—China and Russia. Senior U.S. officials, according to sources, are constantly wheedling China to deny overflight rights to suspicious planes exiting North Korea, without success. Last week, China and Russia blocked a proposed condemnation of North Korea's nuclear arms program by the U.N. Security Council.
Underlying any action against the North is the risk that the rogue nation will do something crazy in response. Trying to stop ships and planes carrying hardware that represents one of the country's few sources of income could have "dangerous consequences," says Bermudez, the Jane's analyst. "What happens if the North Koreans open fire?"
Washington seems to calculate that the risk cannot be avoided without confronting far greater dangers later. Iran watcher Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, citing sources in Iran, says a delegation of mullahs traveled to Pyongyang a few months ago to discuss swapping nuclear technology for cash. It isn't known if the deal was concluded. But after the trip, top leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards were told that Iran would have its own nuclear weapons "soon," says Ledeen. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had no nukes. That regime is gone, but how much more frightening will Bush's "axis of evil" be a year from now?