McCoy on Bechtol Jr., 'North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling Violence and Instability'

Bruce E. Bechtol Jr.
Robert E. McCoy

Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling Violence and Instability. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 274 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-7588-1.

Reviewed by Robert E. McCoy (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Diplo (December, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Exposing North Korea Arms Proliferation

Observers of North Korea and other pundits have long complained about the dearth of detailed information on North Korea. While admittedly there is no great wealth of open source material on the Pyongyang regime, a substantial amount of data is available to those willing to look for it. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr.’s book North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa is a strong case in point.

North Korea is an impoverished nation that has managed to develop both nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. To meet the enormous costs of such programs, Pyongyang has engaged—and continues to engage—in a host of illegal money-making activities. The most lucrative of those undertakings is the sale of arms and associated technologies across the globe to anyone who has the wherewithal to purchase them.

In a groundbreaking effort that is to be commended, Bechtol states that the intent of his work is to provide a predictive analysis based upon ongoing North Korean activity, thus furnishing actionable intelligence. In addition, his study is an embarrassing exposure of ineffective Western policies, procedures, and practices regarding North Korean arms trading that have gone on for decades and that continue to this day. 

Bechtol’s sources include North Korean defectors, fellow scholars, open source intelligence reports, and field interviews conducted in the Middle East and Africa. Relying upon old-fashioned research and personal conversations, Bechtol has put together a remarkable work that brings to the fore a number of disturbing details amply illustrating that there is indeed relevant information out there—if one makes the effort to find it.

Writing in an accessible style, Bechtol clearly makes the case that administration after administration in the United States has missed the boat when it comes to recognizing what, where, and how North Korea has been doing for decades with regard to the proliferation of conventional arms in addition to the transfer of nuclear technology and the sale of other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as their means of delivery.

Through Bechtol’s connecting of the dots for us, the reader comes to an understanding of just how deeply Pyongyang has been—and continues to be—involved in the international arms trade. Equally important, Bechtol details just how the Kim family enterprise of illegally proliferating arms across the globe has managed to succeed. The book begins by cataloging the various arms that North Korea proliferates, continues through explaining how the Kim regime succeeds in its endeavors, and finishes with identifying Pyongyang’s customers.

Bechtol makes a convincing case that the United States and other countries could—indeed, should—have done better in tracking North Korean weapons proliferation activities. His work is heavily documented, with sixty-eight pages of notes and a bibliography that runs an additional twenty-eight pages.

While the purpose of Bechtol’s work is to bring attention to proliferation, it would have been helpful in understanding the importance of strategic weapons such as missiles to include a table that listed North Korea’s proliferated missiles and their performance specifications, such as whether they are road-mobile, what their ranges are, what types of warheads are they capable of carrying, and how large a warhead they can accommodate.

A lesser shortcoming is that biological and chemical weapons are not included in the section on WMD. Such weapons are far more likely to be used than nuclear bombs, and they are much easier to deploy. Syria, a long-time buyer of North Korean arms, has not so long ago demonstrated the utility of chemical weapons.

Both biological and chemical weapons are, however, included in the book’s discussions on conventional weaponry. Bechtol points out that these weapons can be fitted into rocketry and short-range missile warheads. Inexplicably, though, he does not mention the utility of North Korea’s drones in delivering biological or chemical weapons, a likely application of those particular WMDs.

Bechtol then exposes how Pyongyang succeeded in selling its lethal merchandise and why it still prospers. The Kim family regimes have used a convoluted system of complicit banks, sham accounts, and front men acting on behalf of North Korea. Additional methods include shell businesses and the North Korean equivalent of interlinked companies to conceal financial transactions from tracking.

Bechtol identifies the nation-states and the nonstate actors in the Middle East and Africa that benefit from Pyongyang’s clandestine activities, listing the scope and the depth of the North’s involvement with each country. Some countries buy only small arms and training, while others are interested in nuclear technology, delivery systems of various ranges, and biological or chemical weapons. Some that have received North Korean weapons, associated training, or maintenance support were at that time American allies.

While the significance of the book with regard to exposing the tentacles of North Korea’s proliferation machine in the Middle East and Africa is clear, one is also struck by revelations of how past US administrations have failed to counter Pyongyang’s efforts. The final chapter offers suggestions for improving the existing sanctions regimen against the North and also calls for better oversight and enforcement.

A major argument is that sanctions without enforcement are not effective. The weakness has always been the behavior of those countries that allow North Korea to continue its proliferation. History shows, Bechtol points out, that when sanctions have been enforced, Pyongyang has been hurt.

Bechtol, a retired US Marine, points out, almost in passing, that perhaps the lack of attention to the issue of weapons proliferation might be due to the nature of academics and senior political advisors. Very few of them have significant military experience. It is a noteworthy point that bears consideration, for the world’s illicit arms trade does oblige, at a minimum, cognizance of the problem and its implications for the future. 

Although he does not raise the issue directly, only hinting at it, Bechtol brings the question to mind: “If we can know all this stuff about North Korea and its illegal weapons proliferation efforts, why haven’t we done something more effective about it?” After digesting this book, readers will be asking themselves this very question. It is one that our government ought to be asking itself as well.

Citation: Robert E. McCoy. Review of Bechtol Jr., Bruce E., North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling Violence and Instability. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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