The ability to trade weapons of war with other countries provides the seller state with a variety of benefits. In an attempt to curtail the enjoyment of these benefits, the US has imposed a number of sanctions against North Korea. Despite its status as the one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world, North Korea has been able to engage in international arms trade. Beginning in the 1980s, North Korean arms trade thrived by exporting “…inexpensive, technically unsophisticated, but reliable weapons…” to states in the Middle East and Africa. The majority of these exports went to Libya and Iran. This trade occurred despite the United States listing the state as a terrorist organization and banning trade with them or states who do business with them through the 1979 Export Control Act.
Perhaps the most devastating example of North Korea’s circumvention of international arms trade sanctions lies in their late 1900s relationship with Zimbabwe. In 1980, Robert Mugabe overthrew the British-supported Smith regime of Rhodesia and subsequently visited then ruler Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. As a result of that visit, Mugabe secured equipment required to arm over 3500 loyalist soldiers. Kim agreed to provide Mugabe’s loyalist forces with “… tanks, armored vehicles, and light weapons.” Furthermore, Kim promised Mugabe a collection of North Korean troops intended to help train Mugabe’s ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African Nation Union Patriotic Front) forces. The North Korean forces were used to train and equip a ZANU-PF group known as the Fifth Brigade. This brigade was sent in to Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe where they played a role in the death of over 20,000 people. Most of those killed were ethnically Ndebele, leading opponents of Mugabe to refer to the act as genocide.
The massive loss of life in Zimbabwe as a direct result of North Korean arms trade and military training highlights a problem with international sanctions. Sanctions are only effective if the nation being sanctioned suffers a deterring loss as a result of the sanctions. US sanctions against North Korea had been in place since the 1950s, the tightening of sanctions as a result of the American Export Act had little effect in terms of deterrence.
Today, North Korea is arguably more economically isolated than it was during the 80s, in which it traded with Zimbabwe. That is due in part to the collaboration of international partners. Regardless of the international collaboration to prevent the North Korean arms trade, Pyongyang manages to continue selling through a complex criminal network and use of proxies. While sanctions continue to be the preferred method of curtailing errant North Korean behavior, additional efforts need to be made. One possible solution is the extension of sanctions to all nations known to purchase arms from these North Korean proxies. This needs to be coupled with an increase of resources devoted to the discovery and detection of these same proxies. Without such efforts, sanctions against North Korea will continue to be fruitless.