Security and Defense: The North Korean connection

Former US intelligence officer Bruce Bechtol sheds light on North Korea’s pervasive involvement in the military buildups of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

A ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is seen at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 11, 2016. (photo credit: KNCA KNCA)
A ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is seen at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 11, 2016.
(photo credit: KNCA KNCA)
Hamas’s attack tunnels in Gaza, Hezbollah’s Scud D missile stockpiles in southern Lebanon, and the Fordow Iranian nuclear facility, dug into a mountain, all have one thing in common. None of them would exist in their current form without North Korea’s assistance and worldwide weapons proliferation network.
That fact may surprise some, but it certainly does not surprise Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol, an American-Jewish expert on the rogue state’s military proliferation to the Middle East.
Bechtol is in Israel – his first time here – on a book research visit, and he described in detail to The Jerusalem Post Pyongyang’s heavy involvement in the force buildup process of state and substate actors that form the ranks of Israel’s enemies.
Bechtol dropped out of high school at age 17 to join the US Marine Corps.
Today he is a professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas. Before entering academic life, Bechtol worked for many years in the heart of the classified American intelligence world.
In the Marine Corps, he served for 20 years in signals intelligence. Then, he worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, from 1997 to 2003, as an intelligence officer, eventually becoming a senior analyst for Northeast Asia in the Joint Staff’s Directorate for Intelligence in the Pentagon.
Bechtol is the president of the International Council on Korean Studies, and has authored four books on the country, including Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security, and Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea.
Transitioning from the world of intelligence to academia required special precautions in the first years, he told the Post in Ramat Gan on Wednesday, at the offices of the Shurat Hadin legal rights group, which is hosting Bechtol.
“Anything I wrote had to have clearly attributed sources, so that it was understood that it did not come from intelligence sources but, rather, from open sources. I wrote my first book in 2007, and I am still in that habit.
It turned out to be a good thing. I use more endnotes,” he said.
North Korea not only traffics its weapons around the world; it also pushes illegal cigarettes, and drugs, like methamphetamines, which the regime manufactures itself, he said.
This combined proliferation and illicit activity make up 40 percent of all of North Korea’s economy, Bechtol said. “They need this to survive.”
In addition, it is the lucrative nature of weapons smuggling that led North Korea to forge a relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1983.
In the early days, when Iran was embroiled in a lengthy and bloody war with Iraq, North Korea sold it Scud B missiles. “The Iranians instantly started firing them at Iraq. They then bought artillery, tanks and trucks – legacy Soviet-made gear from the ’50s and ’60s,” and used them throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Bechtol said.
Since then, North Korea has sold Iran Scud Bs, Cs, Ds, extended-range scuds, and played a crucial role in every step taken by Iran’s domestic missile program. It helped Iran build the Safir two-stage missile and the Sejil solid fuel missile, according to Bechtol’s research.
Within the past two years, at least two long-range missile parts shipments from North Korea arrived in Iran, he said. Iranian technicians traveled to North Korea for help in developing an 80-ton rocket booster.
Then, more missile parts arrived in the Islamic Republic in the fall of 2015, he said. “Conventional weapons sales to Iran began in the 1980s, picked up steam in the 1990s, and have “really gotten big since the start of the Syrian civil war” in 2012, Bechtol said.
This week, Iran has test-fired multiple ballistic missiles, in its latest show of regional force, and in violation of UN sanctions on Iranian missile development.
Yet Iran’s missile program would be nonexistent had North Korea not helped it develop and manufacture projectiles based on Pyongyang’s Nodong missile prototype.
“The [Iranian] Imad missile is a Nodong with an extended range,” Bechtol said.
“The Shihab-3 came after North Korea held a Nodong missile test in front of Pakistanis and Iranians in 1993, sending it over Japan. Both Pakistan and Iran agreed to buy the missile.”
Iran paid for it with cash and some oil.
The missiles arrived in Iran on a ship, with Farsi letters written on them. Since then, the North Koreans have become expert sea smugglers, with their ships changing flags many times while at sea, setting off from small Asian ports toward the Middle East, Bechtol added.
In the mid-2000s, Iran came up with a way to avoid US missile nonproliferation enforcement. It built Shihab-3 “factories,” which were actually North Korean-supervised assembly points, allowing North Korea to smuggle the missiles in pieces to the Islamic Republic by ship.
“The components are assembled under the supervision of North Korean advisers.
The same thing happens with the Scud D missiles in Syria, and with chemical weapons in Syria,” Bechtol said.
“These factories are fabricated facilities.
Iran is still relying on parts coming over from North Korea. The North Koreans split them up into components – they are harder to detect that way,” he added.
Without North Korea, Iran’s entire liquid fuel ballistic missile industry would grind to a halt, he said. The Assad regime, too, would lose its Scud missile program.
North Korea has in recent years been funneling weapons to Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, to Hamas, according to Bechtol.
Sometimes, the weapons go from North Korea to Hezbollah via the IRGC trafficking network. At other times, the arms travel through Syria. In some instances, the weapons are shipped directly from North Korea to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah uses Iranian money to pay for them.
From 2003 onward, Bechtol said, North Korean engineers began building underground facilities for Hezbollah, which the IDF struggled to target three years later, in the Second Lebanon War, as they “built directly into rock.”
“Hezbollah alone does not have that capability.
The Iranians contracted the North Koreans to do this. The company that did it is the Korean Mining Development Company.
They moved into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley disguised as Chinese domestic workers.
North Korea has built many underground facilities in southern Lebanon,” he added. This activity continues to this very day. Hezbollah has an underground “city” of command and control bunkers and tunnels in southern Lebanon.
Bechtol stresses that this assistance is nonideological. “The North Koreans could not give a damn. For them, this is just a customer. The factor is the money. These sales have increased since Kim Jong Un took over, and the Syrian civil war has become a gold mine for North Korea,” he said.
Many thousands of rockets sit around in North Korean warehouses, including 122 mm., 107 mm., rocket-propelled grenades and SKS semiautomatic rifles. Many of these arms find their way to Hezbollah.
After the 2006 war, 100 Hezbollah commandos traveled to North Korea for a year of training in guerrilla warfare tactics, under a body known at the time as the Reconnaissance Bureau.
North Korean war advisers remain in Iran, Bechtol aid, and occasionally travel to Lebanon. “Much of the training that Hezbollah received from North Korean trainers has occurred in Iran,” he added.
In 2014, North Korea and Hamas struck a deal for the sale of 107-mm. and 102- mm. multiple rocket launchers. Hamas installed some of these systems on pickup trucks.
“The tunnels that Hamas dug under Gaza into Israel – the concrete reinforcements – those are North Korean characteristics.
I don’t know whether North Korea got people into Gaza and trained them, or whether that training occurred in Lebanon.
But it is a North Korean modus operandi,” Bechtol said.
The pattern repeats itself all over the region. In Iran, on a much grander scale, North Korea constructed underground nuclear facilities that can withstand bunker- busting bombs.
“They built them in such a way that only a suicide commando mission could get to them,” the professor said.
In neighboring Syria, the Assad regime’s mounting material losses created a huge need for equipment. The North Koreans did not hesitate to move in, Bechtol said, sending T-55 tanks (North Korean variants), trucks, RPGs and shoulder-fired missiles.
“The Assad regime fired lots of scuds, and multiple rocket launchers fired a lot, too. The Syrians fired chemical weapons.
All of these came from North Korea,” he said. “From the cradle to the grave, North Korea has been helping the Syrians. If you look at the Syrian army, it is much like the North Korean one, based on legacy Soviet systems from the 1950s and ’60s.”
This assistance is not limited to conventional arms. In 2007, according to international reports, the Israel Air Force struck a Syrian plutonium nuclear weapons facility in the northeast of the country. Since then, reports have said the facility was built by North Koreans and financed by Iran.
It stands to reason that Iran can continue to develop its nuclear program “offshore,” in North Korea, and import the infrastructure in the future, Bechtol said.
North Korea “shows no hesitation in proliferating nuclear programs to other regimes,” he said. “It has also proliferated chemical weapons to Iran.”
“North Korea’s plutonium weaponization program is proven, and Pyongyang likely also has a uranium-based parallel program,” he said.
“Would it be possible for Iran to continue its nuclear program offshore? Hell yeah, it would be possible. It’s already been done,” he said, referring to the Syrian example, and to the fact that Libya had the same designs as North Korea for a 500-kilogram nuclear warhead missile.
Bechtol believes the North Koreans helped Iran develop a nuclear warhead for the Nodong missile, and helped with the Iranian plutonium reactor at Arak.
“We know that the head of Iran’s highly enriched uranium program was in North Korea in 2013, likely to observe a uranium nuclear test in 2013. Would the Iranians go offshore to have North Korea continue their development? The Iranians are doing that,” he said.
When it comes to countermeasures, Bechtol said the most important thing the US could do is to target Pyongyang’s “dirty money” in several Asian banks. This would create a snowball effect, leading banks to push North Korea out, to avoid risking that the US and its allies would pull their financial assets out.
“That’s exactly what happened in 2005, when the US Treasury sanctioned” an Asian bank carrying North Korean counterfeit money, he said. This led the North Koreans to drag suitcases of cash to far-off corners of Mongolia to deposit funds.
Such efforts ended in 2007, when the US reached an agreement with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. Since then, North Korea disregarded the agreement.
“We’re never going to be able to target all of their ships,” Bechtol said. “They change flags 14 times on a sea journey from North Korea to Tartus [on Syria’s Mediterranean coast]. They bury weapons in cargo.
“They have got their dirty money in several small Chinese banks, at least one Singaporean bank and probably a bank in southeast Asia. We have to go after 12 banks. Can we do this? Yeah. Everyone knows, since 2005, that we can do this.
But no one wants to do it, for fear of leading to a North Korean collapse.”
In the meantime, North Korean weapons will continue to flood Israel’s volatile neighborhood