1 September 2010

Taking control: Stopping North Korean WMD-related procurement

Stephanie Lieggi

Lieggi is a research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (...


Robert Shaw

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Masako Toki

Masako Toki is the project manager and research associate in the Nonproliferation Education...

North Korea’s efforts to obtain technology related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were recently revealed when two Japan-based traders were convicted for attempting to illegally transport sensitive materials. Historically, North Korea has acquired much of its WMD-related technology and training from abroad, particularly China and the Soviet Union; today, North Korea’s procurement networks employ a sophisticated mix of front companies, brokers, and transshipment strategies. Over the last decade, about a half-dozen cases of WMD-related trafficking have surfaced, demonstrating the extent of foreign technology and know-how obtained by North Korea. The country’s trafficking threatens international security and the viability of the global efforts to stem the flow of sensitive dual-use technologies. The use of front companies and transshipment destinations reveals a network that is continuously evolving in response to U.N. sanctions and increased nonproliferation-focused export controls in supplier countries like Japan. The convictions are noteworthy in that they are based on Japan’s “catch-all” controls, designed to encompass even the most innocuous dual-use items if intended for WMD programs. While North Korea’s WMD-related procurement networks continue to evolve, national and regional countermeasures may be able to keep pace, especially if bolstered by multilateral sanctions such as those currently in place against North Korea. Japan’s export control system reflects what may be an innovative variant of counterproliferation—one characterized less by traditional military action and more by intelligence gathering, investigative capacity, regional information-sharing, and police action. The authors explore how Tokyo’s efforts may serve as a useful model for other countries seeking to implement effective nonproliferation-related trade controls.