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North Korea

Relations with the Third World

Since the mid-1960s, North Korea has been an ardent and increasingly resourceful supplier of military equipment and expertise to governments and resistance movements throughout the Third World. Military assistance has been provided in the form of equipment transfers, in-country training, and advisory groups (see table 12, Appendix).

Beginning in the early 1970s, P'yongyang decided to use military assistance programs as an instrument of foreign policy. Ideological concerns incline North Korea to extend military and financial aid to national liberation movements, guerrilla forces, and terrorist groups. Although its small economic base limits the scale of its involvement in external military assistance, North Korea is nevertheless relatively active. Foreign military assistance efforts concentrate on comparatively inexpensive training programs. The true extent of North Korea's involvement in providing military assistance may never be known, however, because of its obsessive secrecy and the inherently covert nature of radical and revolutionary groups.

By 1990 North Korea had provided military training to groups in sixty-two countries--twenty-five in Africa, nineteen in Central and South America, nine in Asia, seven in the Middle East, and two in Europe. A cumulative total of more than 5,000 foreign personnel have been trained in North Korea, and over 7,000 military advisers, primarily from the Reconnaissance Bureau, have been dispatched to some forty-seven countries. As of mid-1993, military advisers from North Korea were in approximately twelve African countries. North Korea is a convenient alternative to the superpowers for military assistance.

External military assistance also includes weapons agreements. Equipment transfers in the 1980s alone totaled nearly US$4 billion. In Asia economic, technical, and military aid was channeled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, but the level of aid, and whether it included any manpower support, is open to speculation. North Korea also offered strong verbal support to the "struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism." In 1971 the entire North Korean diplomatic mission to Sri Lanka was expelled for giving financial support to the revolutionary People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna). Members of the Thai Communist Party received military training in North Korea in 1976. Pakistan was sold basic ground forces equipment in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In Africa support was provided to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario) guerrillas operating in the Western Sahara against Morocco and to those in Algeria and Chad. Support came in the form of training and small arms supplied in modest quantities. In the mid-1970s, modest amounts of military equipment were supplied and training was provided to governments or revolutionary groups operating in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In the 1980s, North Korea's highest profile military advisory activity was in Zimbabwe. Beginning in 1981, North Korea equipped and trained the Zimbabwean army's Fifth Brigade for counterinsurgency and internal security duties. P'yongyang provided almost all the equipment and about US$18 million worth of small arms and ammunition. The mission was not successful, however, and by 1986 the Zimbabwean government had the unit retrained by British military instructors.

In South America and Central America, P'yongyang provided financial aid, military training, and small arms in modest quantities to antigovernment groups operating in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela during the 1970s. Documents seized during the United States 1983 military intervention in Grenada also revealed plans for North Korean military assistance there, to include small arms, two patrol boats, and ammunition. Military relations with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua included the transfer of patrol boats and other unconfirmed aid. In April 1986, North Korea sold rifles to the government of Peru.

There are indications that North Korean advisers were involved in actual military operations in the Middle East, including reports that North Korean pilots flew Egyptian aircraft during the October 1973 War. North Koreans also are alleged to have operated Libyan tanks during the 1977 Egyptian-Libyan conflict, although North Korea has never admitted that its advisers participated in combat overseas. Reliable reports suggest that as many as 100 North Korean pilots and air crews were in Libya training pilots on Soviet-supplied aircraft beginning in 1979 and continuing for several years and in some cases were actually involved in operational activities. Support to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began in the late 1970s and included military training in North Korea and the supply of small amounts of arms. PLO support still may have been continuing in mid-1993.

By the 1980s, many of North Korea's defense industry limitations had been overcome, and by the early 1990s North Korea was capable of supplying a much wider range of weapons and training. Although ideology remains a significant component of military assistance, economic considerations have become increasingly important in weapons transfers. Arms sales to the Middle East garner North Korea hard currency, alternative oil sources, and access to restricted technology. Military equipment transfers have been expanded to include high value-added military equipment such as Scud missiles, antitank guided missiles, tanks and armored vehicles, self-propelled and towed heavy field artillery, and naval vessels.

For the decade ending in 1987, the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated that North Korea earned US$3.9 billion from arms transfers to over thirty countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central America, and spent some US$2.8 billion on arms imports from China and the Soviet Union. Purchases included aircraft, missiles, trucks, radars, and command, control, communications, and intelligence equipment. Exports to Iran of approximately US$2.8 million comprised 71 percent of total weapons exports. Arms sales during the peak year 1982 represented 38 percent of North Korea's total exports. Arms exports between 1981 and 1987 averaged around 27 percent of exports annually, with a 1981 high of 40 percent and a 1986 low of 14 percent.

The Middle East is the major market for North Korean arms, with most sales going to Iran and Libya. Other Middle East clients include Syria, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), the PLO, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sales to Iran peaked in the first three years of the Iran-Iraq War when Iran ordered almost US$1 billion worth of arms from North Korea; by the end of the war, some US$2.8 billion worth of arms had been purchased. The first Iranian arms agreement in late 1980 covered light infantry weapons and ammunition. Follow-on orders, however, quickly expanded the scope of purchases. These arms transfers also became the basis for cooperation in military production, particularly in short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also trained the Iranians on Chinese mobile surface-to-air-missiles and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in unconventional warfare. After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, continuing cooperation indicated that technology transfers were still going on.

North Korean-Egyptian cooperation continues to grow. The two nations are believed to have cooperated on each other's battlefield ballistic missile programs. Agreements with Egypt involve replacement parts for Soviet equipment and cooperative efforts in missile technology. In 1980 Egypt signed a US$40 million arms agreement for various ground systems. In 1984 the two countries signed a joint agreement for the development of the Egyptian variant of the SA-2b/Guideline missile. The two countries also may have cooperated on the Egyptian Eagle/SAKR-80 and the BADR-2000/Condor II missile programs.

Training and advisory groups remain an important part of the military assistance policy. In 1988 South Korean sources estimated that North Korea was offering a wide range of military and unconventional warfare training at thirty facilities for anywhere from three to eighteen months. Advisory groups were active in thirty-four countries in 1988, mostly in Asia and Africa. The size of the advisory groups ranges from as few as twenty to over 100 persons.

In the early 1990s, opportunities for North Korean military assistance programs began declining because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its hardline Marxist-Leninist bloc, and the end of several long-running military disputes such as the Iran-Iraq War and conflicts in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. Arms exports remain technologically backward, but by offering systems at comparatively low prices and showing little concern about the buyer, P'yongyang has gained a niche in markets where compatible Soviet equipment dominates. North Korea's motivation has increasingly shifted from a revolutionary ideological underpinning to cooperative activity with other states that are uncomfortable with the emerging constraints on arms transfers and the dominance of the United States in the new world order.

Data as of June 1993

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