My wonderful colleague Andrea Berger unearthed a few nuggets on the Sri Lankan-North Korean military relationship and has written up a fascinating little piece to share with us.
The UN Panel of Experts working on North Korea sanctions implementation published its latest report last week which is, as usual, a treasure trove of details for DPRK geeks to dig into. If you haven’t already, make some time to flick through it.
Chinese coal announcements and assassinations in Malaysia naturally meant that many people read the report for details about those two countries. But another country mentioned in the report – Sri Lanka—deserves a bit of love and attention, too. The report says the following about Colombo’s antics:
The Panel established that the representative of Green Pine in Angola, a diplomat of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea named Mr. Kim Hyok Chan, and another Angola-based diplomat named as a Green Pine representative, Mr. Jon Chol Young, travelled together to Sri Lanka three times (between 2014 and 2016) to discuss shipbuilding projects. Described as boat-building experts, they reportedly met with the State Minister of Defence of Sri Lanka on 5 November 2015 to discuss building naval patrol vessels at a Sri Lankan shipyard prior to sale to its navy. The Panel has yet to receive a reply from Sri Lanka.
This is not the first time that Sri Lanka has been on the radar for negotiating purchases of military goods from North Korea. In a little-known event, the US issued a demarche to their Sri Lankan counterparts in March 2009 over suspicions that Lanka Logistics and Technologies Ltd, which is responsible for equipment purchases for the Sri Lankan armed forces, was chatting with the Korea Mining and Development Corporation (KOMID). KOMID, as we know, is North Korea’s primary arms trading firm.
At the time, US officials noted that “given North Korea’s continued destabilizing activities, and the international reaction to those activities, now is not the time for business as usual with North Korea”. It doesn’t sound like they got the memo.
Apparently at the time Sri Lanka was interested in purchases of rocket propelled grenades (RPG-7s) and multiple rocket launchers. Both have been big sellers for North Korea over the years. Only a few months ago Egypt seized a consignment of 30,000 North Korean-made RPG-7 units, headed to an unspecified destination.
The 2009 purchase was incomplete at the time of the demarche, and it is unclear whether it ever went through. But it was fascinating then for one major reason: at the time, the Sri Lankan government was still embroiled in a civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were also being supplied by the North Koreans. A cable nine months earlier, and several throughout preceding years, highlight conversations between the US and Sri Lanka about how North Korea was helping arm the other side. Apparently, motherships loaded with weapons would sail from North Korea, park offshore (one incident took place 190 miles off the Indian coast), and wait for smaller LTTE trawlers to come out to them. Those boats would presumably then load up and return with their haul to Sri Lanka.
For my monograph Target Markets: North Korea’s Military Customers in the Sanctions Era, I also interviewed a North Korean arms broker who recounted having demonstrated systems for “buyers from Sri Lanka”. He never specified which side, but at the time I interpreted it as the LTTE. In fact, at approximately the same time that the Sri Lankan military was complaining about North Korean arms sales to the LTTE, it was looking to buy from North Korea too. Clearly, North Korea didn’t have political allegiances in the conflict, but just wanted to earn some cash.
It’s possible the strange series of events is best explained by the old adage, “never assume conspiracy when incompetency will suffice”. This could just be a classic case of disjointed internal decision-making, which is a never-ending story in the field of DPRK sanctions.
The latest revelations add credence to that theory. Negotiations were reportedly ongoing with Green Pine, another North Korean arms trading firm linked to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, at approximately the same time that Sri Lankan customs officials were trying to look like the good guy with respect to DPRK sanctions enforcement. According to the UN Panel:
On 17 March 2016 in Sri Lanka, an overseas worker of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mr. Kim Song Chol, was arrested at the airport in Colombo carrying $167,000 in cash, gold jewellery and watches. He was en route from Oman to Beijing and made no customs declaration. He was accompanied by five other individuals from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were working in Oman for a construction company of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea based in Dubai with a post office box address. He produced a list with 311 names of workers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea whose families in Pyongyang he was to pay…
So, the right hand is stopping North Korean cash, and the left hand is thinking about putting a whole bunch in the North Korean military’s pockets. And eventually, Sri Lanka may just end up hitting itself for doing so.