The Most Urgent North Korean Nuclear Threat Isn’t What You Think

North Korea’s resumed nuclear weapons tests lead to understandable handshakes in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Such tests show Pyongyang’s growing ability to handle nuclear weapons and are a terrifying reminder that a crisis could break out on the Korean peninsula at any time.

Worrying as missile tests are, the chances of war in the Korean peninsula remain slim. Policy makers should be more concerned about the likelihood of North Korea selling nuclear and missile technology to countries in the Middle East.

A nuclear power with a cash flow problem

For three decades, neither diplomacy nor increasingly stringent economic sanctions have reversed North Korea’s aspirations to possess nuclear weapons. They also did not interfere with North Korea’s illegal trade relations with Iran, Syria and other states in the Middle East. Even during the heady days of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 2018 and 2019 and the love letter diplomacy of former President Donald Trump, North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles continued to grow. During the same period, the UN panel of experts, which assesses compliance with economic and trade sanctions against North Korea, reported several times when North Korean companies were selling technology for missiles or weapons of mass destruction to buyers in the Middle East.

Toby Dalton

Dalton is Co-Director and Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Endowment Nuclear Policy Program. As an expert on non-proliferation and nuclear energy, he deals with regional security challenges and the development of the global nuclear order.


The threats posed by the WMD programs in North Korea have continued to mount despite ongoing pressure from Washington to stifle the North Korean economy. Since 2009, the United States has led the UN Security Council to pass eight major resolutions imposing far-reaching sanctions. These resolutions prohibit, among other things, North Korean exports of coal and seafood and remittances from North Korean workers from overseas, while North Korean imports of refined petroleum, technology and equipment for its nuclear and missile programs, as well as a number of other goods, are banned. US secondary sanctions have also restricted North Korea’s access to the international financial system.

The sanctions have undoubtedly harmed North Korea’s economy – and exacerbated the already dangerous living conditions of many North Korean citizens – but they did not come close to forcing Kim to choose whether to disarm or curb his weapons of mass destruction trade.

Then the coronavirus pandemic made North Korea’s economy much worse. Kim’s decision to seal the country’s borders has resulted in economic pain that Washington could never have achieved through sanctions. Recent reports suggest that North Korea’s leadership is increasingly alarmed over failed economic programs, leading to power outages, factory closures, and shortages of some staple foods. Foreign diplomats have left North Korea because of the difficult living conditions and lack of medicines and basic goods in Pyongyang. It’s no surprise that North Korea is increasingly relying on cyber attacks and cryptocurrency theft to generate revenue.

North Korea’s WMD bazaar

North Korea’s desperation could make an ongoing US printing strategy even riskier. Kim’s regime remains remarkably resilient, making a collapse seem unlikely – even if US officials were wise to prepare for this unique scenario. The most likely result of North Korea’s cash needs is an increase in other dangerous behaviors. WMD technology is one of the few North Korean assets with added value.

North Korea’s proliferation rap sheet is long: missile and nuclear trade with Pakistan; Missile sales to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other countries; Chemical weapons support for Syria; and more. North Korea, in particular, was secretly attempting to build a nuclear reactor in Syria, a facility that may have supplied plutonium for a Syrian bombing program until Israel air strikes destroyed the partially built reactor in 2007. The March 2021 UN Panel of Experts report reported ongoing support for North Korea in Iran’s ballistic missile and space launch programs. Iranian scientists reportedly went to North Korea to discuss missile booster technology, while 13 North Korean experts are said to have visited Iran to help with liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. According to the report, cooperation between North Korean and Iranian companies also extends to illegal shipments of valves, electronics and other missile-related devices.

Aside from the reactor project in Syria, North Korea is not yet known to have transferred more sensitive nuclear technologies – long-range missiles, nuclear weapon designs, equipment or technology to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium for a bomb, or those materials itself. North Korean heads of state and government have probably believed in the past that such transfers cross an implicit red line and could have more severe consequences if discovered. Now that Kim is increasingly desperate for cash, he might be more willing to risk selling these items to interested customers in the Middle East, including possibly terrorist groups.

When such sales come to light, it is to be expected that Israel will again take preventive measures. Israel regularly carries out air strikes against missile plants and other weapon-related sites in Syria. It is also suspected of murdering Iran’s best-known nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020 and causing an explosion that damaged the power supply to Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility in April 2021.

Prioritizing the termination of North Korean nuclear sales

It is a difficult strategy to rely on Israeli strikes to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to prevent opponents in the Middle East from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. At some point, this approach could fail in a variety of ways, with catastrophic consequences. It is bad enough that Washington is facing a complex nuclear challenge from North Korea in East Asia. However, the spread of North Korea, spawning a new nuclear armed state or catalyzing a larger conflict in the Middle East, could be worse.

It is becoming increasingly dangerous to maintain economic pressure on North Korea without creating a diversion through negotiations. It’s too late to stop North Korea’s nuclear acquisitions and pressure won’t force Kim to disarm. However, diplomacy with North Korea could prevent another nuclear armed state in the Middle East.

This is the reality of the North Korean threat that President Joe Biden and his administration are facing. It is time for a new US policy that will mitigate the dangers of North Korean weapons of mass destruction programs. To avoid worse results, sanctions and steps towards a peace regime must be offered to end the North Korean weapons trade and the restrictions on its nuclear arsenal. This is the deal Biden should seek before economic desperation brings North Korean nuclear weapons to a volatile Middle East.

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