Geoff Forden38 North: Master Proliferator or Front Co?

Is North Korea a “master proliferator,” providing complete production facilities and extensive know-how for manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems to rogue regimes? Or is it a simple front company for passing along other country’s discarded, obsolete technology? If the latter is true, we might still have a few years left in which we can use today’s “supply-side” nonproliferation regimes to slow down and perhaps stop the spread of these dangerous weapons. If it turns out to be the former, their spread might continue unchecked.

I consider these questions—and what insight we might gain into how the DPRK does its proliferation business—in a piece for SAIS’s new webpage devoted all things North Korean.


  1. Jochen Schischka (History)

    My guess is that at the moment, the DPRK is something inbetween; Initially, they simply acted as ‘Front Co’ for the Russians (see e.g. the export of Scud-B to Iran). Later on, the North Koreans expanded their range of products with missile production equipment (mostly scavenged from Russia/former USSR?), improved variations of missiles (that never went into large-scale soviet service and additionally needed some sort of finishing touches, like the Scud-C or the Nodong-A) and possibly also technical help with enhancements of those missile types (i’m thinking of the syrian/ex-iraqi? ER-Scud or the iranian Ghadr-1/Nodong-B?); Nowadays, they seem to design new missile systems largely based on ‘components off the (soviet/russian) shelf’ (see Paektusan, Eunha), as do the Iranians (see Safir, Simorgh – i think the Simorgh’s engine cluster is more or less identical with that of the Eunha, as are the diameters of both missile’s first two stages).

    The question is to what extent do the North Koreans (or Iranians) design this by themselves?

    I remember startling stories about whole parties of russian rocket scientists traveling (or at least trying to) to Pyongyang back in the nineties. That plus the fact that the Russians seem to have suffered some sort of ‘brain drain’ on the missile sector in the last twenty years (see e.g. the difficulties with Bulava) makes me wonder if maybe there are some sort of ‘unofficial north korean subsidiaries’ of the Makyeyev and Isayev design bureaus at work, perhaps nowadays even staffed in part by talented North Koreans trained by their russian mentors.
    The main activities of those hypothetical ‘susidiaries’ are certainly still centered on the procurement of components cannibalized from scrapped soviet missile systems (like e.g. the SS-N-6 vernier-engine, or production equipment for missiles of certain diameters). Additionally, they’d have to find new, innovative applications for those components.

    Unfortunately, the truth about all this will only surface after the fall of the current north korean regime, if at all.

  2. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Hi Geoff. You used the term “rogue regime.” It may be worth clarifying its meaning.

    Let’s say a country has a nuclear stockpile, refuses to join the NPT, and periodically launches invasions in violation of international law. Would this be a rogue regime?

    What if a country occupies land in violation of international law, neither annexing the land to give the natives citizenship, nor giving up the land? What if the country refuses to allow refugees whom it drove from their homes to return to their homes, thus practicing ethnic cleansing?

    What if a country provides billions of dollars to prop up dictatorships in Egypt and Pakistan (Musharraf)?

    Or is it that might makes right, and “rogue regimes” are those that do not play by the rules of the mighty?

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