Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 04/2010

North Korean Shipping: A Potential for WMD Proliferation?

Hazel Smith

February 2009

East-West Center


The possibility that North Korean ships may be smuggling weapons of mass destruction is a matter of intense concern in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. The few reported incidents of North Korean ships involved in WMD transport are ambiguous; some ships have been engaged in legal weapons trade and some carried "dual-use" goods suitable for use in nonmilitary applications, like agriculture. Ownership of the North Korean merchant fleet is largely private and highly fragmented; most of its ships are small, old, and in poor repair, and are often subject to rigorous scrutiny in foreign ports. The inability of the government to effectively regulate the low-cost, substandard shipping industry creates the risk and incentives to smuggle goods, including WMD. Anti-proliferation efforts should abandon the divisive and unsuccessful Proliferation Security Initiative and concentrate on negotiating North Korea's entry into international arms control treaties, maintain stringent port controls, and negotiate technical assistance to reduce the vulnerability of the North Korean shipping industry.