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Ships that ferried artillery rockets and tank parts to distant ports changed their names and registry papers so they could sail under a foreign flag.New front companies sprang up in China and Malaysia to handle transactions free of any visible connection to Pyongyang.Last August, a secret message was passed from Washington to Cairo warning about a mysterious vessel steaming toward the Suez Canal.The bulk freighter named Jie Shun was flying Cambodian colors but had sailed from North Korea, the warning said, with a North Korean crew and an unknown cargo shrouded by heavy tarps.But digging beneath stone and tarp, the inspectors found wooden crates — stacks of them.Asked about the boxes, the crew produced a bill of lading listing the contents, in awkward English, as “assembly parts of the underwater pump.” But after the last of the 79 crates was unloaded and opened at Egypt’s al-Adabiyah port, it was clear that this was a weapons shipment like none other: more than 24,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and completed components for 6,000 more.
“The ship was in terrible shape,” said a Western diplomat familiar with confidential reports from the official U. Although North Korean-owned, the vessel had been registered in Cambodia, allowing it to fly a Cambodian flag and claim Phnom Penh as its home port. intelligence agencies tracked the ship as it left North Korea, and then monitored it as it steamed around the Malay Peninsula and sailed westward across the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
All were North Korean copies of a rocket warhead known as the PG-7, a variant of a Soviet munition first built in the 1960s.
[North Korea defies predictions — again — with early grasp of weapons milestone] A closer examination by U. experts would reveal yet another deception, this one apparently intended to fool the weapons’ Egyptian recipients: Each of the rockets bore a stamp with a manufacturing date of March 2016, just a few months before the Jie Shun sailed. “On-site analysis revealed that they were not of recent production,” the U. report said, “but rather had been stockpiled for some time.” North Korea’s booming illicit arms trade is an outgrowth of a legitimate business that began decades ago.
“North Korea’s assistance created a legacy of dependency,” said Berger, author of “Target Markets,” a 2015 monograph on the history of Pyongyang’s arms exports.
“The type of weaponry that these [client] countries still have in service is largely based on communist-bloc designs from the Cold War era.
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In the 1960s and ’70s, the Soviet Union gave away conventional weapons — and, in some cases, entire factories for producing them — to developing countries as a way of winning allies and creating markets for Soviet military technology.