A checkered story
Over the years, North Korea has gained millions of dollars through the export of weapons and missiles and its involvement in other illegal activities such as drug smuggling, endangered wildlife products, counterfeit goods.
However, there are only a handful of cases that suggest that these illicit networks have been directed towards the export of nuclear technology or materials to other states.
North Korean technicians have helped Pakistani to produce krytrones, probably in 90 krytrones devices are used to trigger the detonation of a nuclear device.
Hexafluoride cylinders later in the 1990s, North Korea has transferred low-enriched uranium (UF6) in Pakistan, where the notorious proliferator A.Q. Khan sent them to Libya. UF6 is a gaseous uranium compound that is needed to create the highly enriched uranium used in weapons.
The most significant case was revealed in 2007 when Israeli aircraft bombed a facility in Syria. The US government claims that it was an “undeclared nuclear reactor” capable of producing plutonium, under construction with the help of North Korea since the late 1990s.
A US intelligence report shortly after the strike highlighted the similarity between the Syrian reactor and the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon. He also noted evidence of unspecified “cargo” transported from North Korea to the site in 2006.
More recently, a US report from 2017 stated that North Korea had tried to sell lithium-6 (Li-6), an isotope used in the production of thermonuclear weapons.
Online advertising that attracted the attention of researchers suggests that North Korea could provide 22 pounds of substance every month Dandong, a Chinese city on the border of North Korea.
There are striking similarities between the latter case and other recent efforts by North Korea to market weapons using companies “out of sight”.
The Li-6 announcement was allegedly related to the pseudonym of a North Korean arms exporter known as the “Green Pine Associated Corporation.” Green Pine and its associates were affected by the asset freeze and travel ban in 2012.
The individual named in the advertisement was a North Korean based in Beijing who was previously on the list having a diplomatic status. As was noted when the story of Li-6 broke out, the contact details provided with the announcement were invented:
The street address did not exist and the phone number did not work. However, potential buyers can contact the seller through the online platform.
This case, our most recent data point, raises important questions. Did North Korea test the water for future sales? Does this suggest that North Korea may be willing to sell materials and goods that it can produce in surpluses? Was the case an anomaly more than representative of a trend?