Over the years North Korea has earned millions of dollars from the export of arms and missiles, and its involvement in other illicit activities such as smuggling drugs, endangered wildlife products and counterfeit goods.
Still, there are only a handful of cases that suggest these illicit networks have been turned to export nuclear technology or materials to other states.
North Korean technicians allegedly assisted the Pakistanis in production of Krytrons, likely sometime in the 1990s. Krytrons are devices used to trigger the detonation of a nuclear device.
Later in the 1990s, North Korea allegedly transferred cylinders of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to Pakistan, where notorious proliferator A.Q. Khan shipped them onward to Libya. UF6 is a gaseous uranium compound that’s needed to create the “highly enriched uranium” used in weapons.
The most significant case was revealed in 2007 when Israeli Air Force jets bombed a facility in Syria. The U.S. government alleges this was an “undeclared nuclear reactor,” capable of producing plutonium, that had been under construction with North Korean assistance since the late 1990s. A U.S. intelligence briefing shortly after the strike highlighted the close resemblance between the Syrian reactor and the North Korean Yongbyon reactor. It also noted evidence of unspecified “cargo” being transported from North Korea to the site in 2006.
More recently, a 2017 U.N. report alleged that North Korea had been seeking to sell Lithium-6 (Li-6), an isotope used in the production of thermonuclear weapons. The online ad that caught the attention of researchers suggested North Korea could supply 22 pounds of the substance each month from Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border.
There are striking similarities between this latest case and other recent efforts by North Korea to market arms using companies “hidden in plain sight.”
Read More: Scientific American