SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — By successfully firing a rocket that put a satellite in space, North Korea let the far-flung buyers of its missiles know that it is still open for business. But Pyongyang will find that customers are hard to come by as old friends drift away and international sanctions lock down its sales.
North Korea's satellite and nuclear programs were masterminded by the late leader Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years under a "military first" policy and died a year ago Monday. An offshoot of the policy was a thriving arms business, including the sale of short and medium-range missiles. The buyers were mostly governments of developing countries — Myanmar, Iran, Syria, Gulf and African nations — looking for bargains.
But sustained Western diplomatic pressure and international sanctions imposed since North Korea first conducted a nuclear test in 2006 have cut into its traditional markets in the Middle East. North Korea is also losing business in Myanmar, which has committed to cutting military dealings with Pyongyang as a price for improved relations with the West. Also, there's shrinking demand for the kind of poor quality, Soviet-type weaponry of 1960s and 1970s vintage that Pyongyang produces and that have limited applications on the modern battlefield.
Arms control expert Joshua Pollack said North Korea accounted for more than 40 percent of the approximately 1,200 ballistic missile systems supplied to the developing world between 1987 and 2009, mostly before the mid-1990s. But he said Pyongyang's client base has shrunk since then because of a "sustained pressure campaign by the U.S. to get buyers of North Korea war materiel and technology to stop."
"The main effect of sanctions and interdiction has been to put the heat on buyers, whenever the U.S. and its partners have some leverage over them," said Pollack, but he added that "Iran and Syria don't care about what we think."
North Korea is still believed to have missile cooperation with the two countries. But with the Syrian leadership fighting to survive a civil war, that market might also dry up. And Iran has now surpassed North Korea in missile development. It has already conducted successful space launches and, in addition to having adapted North Korean designs, is creating its own more sophisticated and more militarily useful medium-range missile, said Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association, a nongovernment group based in Washington.
For years, North Korea was a leading provider of missile systems, particularly to nations in the Middle East. Its first major client was Iran, during its long war with Iraq. They signed a missile development deal in 1985, and North Korea began mass-producing short-range Scuds, aided by Chinese know-how and using Soviet designs. It then graduated to medium-range missiles with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, since the 1980s, North Korea has earned possibly hundreds of millions of dollars by selling at least several hundred short- and medium-range missiles to Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The launch of the Unha-3 rocket was a handy showcase of North Korea's technical capabilities — sending a satellite into space uses a similar technology as firing a long-range missile. The three-stage Unha-3 rocket, with a potential range of 8,000-10,000 kilometers (5,000-6,000 miles), succeeded after failures since 1998.
"The rocket launch dispels doubts about North Korea's missile capabilities and redeems the country's reputation among buyers," said Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea specialist at the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "The launch put an end to years of failure and embarrassment."
However, few governments are likely to be in the market for such a long-range missile — which North Korea remains years away from perfecting.