North Korea has so far steered clear of supplying nuclear technology and materials to terror groups like ISIS, because the regime knows it’s toast if it gets caught selling nukes used in an attack against the U.S.
But the Hermit Kingdom is having cash problems amid tightening international sanctions. And with a young and unpredictable leader who needs to buy the loyalty of his elites, money problems could be a game changer for the regime.
“If sanctions are successful in cutting off too much of North Korea’s cash flow, the regime’s calculation could change,” Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, told Borderless News Online.
To date, North Korea has likely confined its dealings with terrorist organizations to supplying conventional weapons, such as in 2009 when multiple North Korean arms shipments to Iran were seized amid suspicions that the caches were ultimately bound for Iran’s clients Hamas and Hezbollah.
But that could change if Kim is too broke to continue buying off the elites, since his survival as the leader may depend on it.
While Kim Jong-un would not likely order North Korean cooperation in attacks by ISIS or other groups, North Korea is not beyond potentially working with terrorist groups, Stangarone said.
North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation Bruce Bennett told Borderless that the young leader is anxious to acquire hard currency – which he needs to buy the loyalty of his senior elites – as he is running a deficit on cold, hard cash due to international sanctions.
“So he may well be willing to sell nuclear technology and perhaps even nuclear weapons — we do not know,” he said.
North Korea has in the past been involved in the transfer of nuclear technology. Until 2007, his father, Kim Jong il, assisted Syria in building a nuclear reactor that would have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons (which the Israelis later bombed and destroyed), and the senior Kim at the time had less of a need for hard currency than does Kim Jong-un now, some experts noted.
Still, Stangarone said there has been little to indicate that North Korea and ISIS are currently working together, and it seems unlikely at this point.
Moreover, there are indications that they may actually be foes.
North Korea has long supported the Bashir Assad regime in Syria – which has been battling against ISIS – and there have been reports that North Korean soldiers may be in Syria helping Assad’s forces. At the same time, hackers claiming to support ISIS have attacked North Korean websites, Stangarone said.
Bennett noted that while North Korea has worked closely with Iran in recent years, he has seen no evidence of Pyongyang working with ISIS.
“But North Korea is very secretive about most of its dealings, so it could be working with ISIS and we would not necessarily know that was the case,” he said.
Still, ISIS is a Sunni Muslim organization, while Iran is Shiite, and Iran and ISIS fight against each other. So North Korea is likely to stay loyal to Iran and stay away from ISIS to avoid disrupting its business with Iran, Bennett said.
The fear of North Korea selling weapons of mass destruction to an Islamist extremist organization is not new. In the early 2000s, after the 9/11 attacks, there was some fear that North Korea might sell technology to al-Qaeda for a dirty bomb – a crude nuclear device that could be stored in a backpack and set off in crowded place like New York City. But that never happened.
Stangarone said that in the early 2000s, selling technology to al-Qaeda from North Korea would not have been a viable option for North Korea. Kim Jong-il was a cautious and calculating leader, and that would have been a high risk operation. Had the regime been caught, especially had al-Qaeda been successful in using a nuclear device with North Korean technology, it would have meant the end of the regime in Pyongyang, he said.
Stangarone said that ultimately, North Korea would like the U.S. to conclude a peace treaty ending the Korean War and removing the rationale for U.S. troops remaining on the peninsula.
“Dealing with ISIS would only undermine any efforts to get the United States to leave the peninsula and could put the regime’s future at risk,” he said.
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