What the Crisis Means: North Korea, Nukes and Islamists

A North Korean military parade
A North Korean military parade (Photo: Stefan Krasowski/Flickr)

North Korea is officially a communist, Stalinist dictatorship, but that hasn’t stopped it from crossing the ideological divide to embrace Islamist regimes and, reportedly, even jihadist groups. The latest crisis between North Korea and the U.S. appears separate from the war with Islamism, but there are 10 ways it overlaps.

The U.S. and allied intelligence services now believe North Korea has miniaturized its nuclear warheads to fit onto its intercontinental ballistic missiles and has the potentially up to 60 nuclear weapons.

This was seen as an undeclared “red line” and prompted President Trump to threaten to bring “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea’s verbal threats continue; a benchmark North Korea immediately crossed by announcing it was considering a nuclear strike on the U.S. territory of Guam, where 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed. Another 28,000 U.S. troops are in South Korea and 49,000 in Japan.

North Korea threatened to attack Guam in 2013 and its bombastic rhetoric is practically a daily occurrence, but North Korea’s aggressive attacks have increased in recent years including sinking a South Korean ship in 2010, an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that same year, a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014 and a bold assassination of a political rival in a Malaysian airport using the VX biological weapon earlier this year.

1. The Iranian and North Korean WMD programs should be seen as a single entity.

We must now assume that Iran likewise has the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads onto ICBMs.

Iran and North Korea have shared virtually everything when it comes to ballistic missile and nuclear technology. One Iranian opposition group claimed that Iran continued its nuclear program in spite of the nuclear deal by simply outsourcing it to North Korea. The nuclear and missile tests are widely seen as being on done on behalf of Iran with Iranian scientists on the scene for their occurrences.

Both North Korea and Iran helped the Syrian regime pursue nuclear weapons, resulting in the Israeli airstrike on Bashar Assad’s nuclear reactor in 2007. Various reports indicate that Syria’s nuclear program continued thereafter, albeit on a smaller scale.

2. North Korea’s Links to Hamas, Hezbollah and reportedly Al-Qaeda-tied terrorists in the Philippines.

In 2003, the government of the Philippines said that it captured documents showing that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist group that has had a relationship with Al-Qaeda in the past, paid $2 million to North Korea for guns, ammunition and grenades and was looking to buy mini-submarines. Another sale was reported in 2005 of 10,000 rifles.

In 2006, a federal judge ruled that North Korea is liable for damages caused to American-Israeli citizens due to its material support for Hezbollah. Iran sponsored North Korean assistance to help the terrorist group by providing rockets and missiles and guidance on building its sophisticated network of tunnels and bunkers. It said that Hezbollah terrorists have been traveling to North Korea for advanced training since the late 1980s.

In 2009, the UAE intercepted over 2,000 detonators for Hamas’ 122mm Grad rockets and associated equipment. Later that year, Israel intercepted 35 tons of rockets, RPGs, shoulder-fired missiles and equipment for surface-to-air missiles from North Korea to Iran for delivery to the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups in Thailand.

In 2014, it was reported that Hamas was negotiating an arms deal with North Korea worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for missiles and communications equipment and a down payment had already been made. It is strongly suspected that North Korea helped Hamas build its sophisticated tunnel system that was used to attack Israeli civilians and wage war in 2014 against the Israeli military.

The Hamas terrorist group openly thanked North Korea for its political support against Israel this year. The North Korean regime (DPRK) pledged to “mercilessly punish” Israel for its leaders’ accurate description of the ruling leader as a “crazy.” The DPRK said it “fully supports” the Palestinian jihad to have an independent country and to seize Jerusalem, a vague statement that seems to imply material support.

We should expect such sales to increase as sanctions force the North Korean regime to look for more revenue, as well as ways to retaliate against the U.S. and its allies. The North Korean regime has no problem selling arms to Islamists and is not a target of the jihadists, so we shouldn’t be surprised if North Korea goes so far as to directly sell weapons and expertise to groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

3. North Korea has threatened to sell nuclear weapons to other countries and even international terrorist groups. It now has up to 60 nuclear weapons, a number that could grow to 100 by 2020.

In 2005, North Korea threatened to sell its nuclear weapons to terrorist groups “if driven into a corner.”

North Korea has a surplus of nuclear weapons. It can afford to sell off a few if it feels confident that U.S. intelligence will be unable to identify and intercept the shipment; a fair assumption given our recent underestimations of their capabilities.

Past customers for Iranian missiles and arms include Iran and its puppet Assad regime in Syria; Yemen, which is now working with Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood; Pakistan; Eritrea, which has supported Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia; the Somali government; Cuba and possibly Venezuela.  There are suspicions that Turkey is looking to build nuclear weapons, as an imam close to President Erdogan is encouraging this.

4. Joint cyber warfare programs with Iran.

Both Iran and North Korea have launched cyber attacks on the U.S. and its allies with minimal consequences. There is strong evidence that the two rogue states’ programs are interconnected and they are even launching joint cyber attacks together.

5. Radical Islam will seep into an unstable North Korea.

As soon as a closed society begins opening up, the promoters of Islamism get to work. A relevant example is how Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are in a mad dash to lead the Muslim community in Cuba.

In 2010, Pew estimated there are 3,000 Muslims in North Korea, a 300% increase from 1990. It projects that number will stay about the same until at least 2030, but that is doubtful as globalization inevitably penetrates North Korea and exposes more citizens to Islam.

The most jihad-prone forms of Islam in North Korea are already leading the way. In 2013, North Korea allowed Iran to build the country’s first mosque, located at the Iranian embassy.

The extreme anti-Americanism and anti-democracy thought that is instilled in the population means this Muslim population will probably be inclined towards radicalism.

 6. Regime instability will be a gold mine for terrorists, criminals and rogue states.

The regime is bound to become more unstable over time and that could increase as international tension rises and the U.S. potentially tries to undermine Kim Jong-Un. North Korea is armed to the teeth with deadly expertise, conventional weapons and WMDs, all of which will be sold off by their hungry protectors or abandoned in the event of extreme upheaval.

All kinds of black market criminals, terrorists and governments will be trying to snatch up whatever they can. For Islamists, they will look to the Muslim population for logistical support. Iranian operatives are already in the country, as may be Hezbollah terrorists.

ISIS is on the rise in the Philippines, the Islamic terror threat is increasing in South Korea and it’s only a matter of time before China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang Province becomes a jihadist front. North Korea is isolated now, but don’t assume that Islamists won’t be able to enter the country and make contact with its black market as the regime becomes unstable.

 7. Reported plans for a two-front war by Iran, Syria and North Korea.

There have been intelligence reports since the early 1990s indicating that Iran, Syria and North Korea had a deal to force the U.S. into a two-front war if any one of them came into military conflict with America. Since then, these countries have only grown stronger, we have grown weaker, and their friendships have grown tighter.

Of course, we do not know if such an agreement exists today and we also do not know if they are loyal enough to honor it if it exists. However, the reported historical precedent must be taken into account and it is certain that Iran, Syria and North Korea will at least take limited measures to assist each other in the event of military conflict. And if Iran and North Korea have aspirations to commit aggression, there’s no better time to act than when the U.S. is preoccupied on another front.

8. Bogging down the U.S.

If the situation escalates, then the U.S. military—already suffering from the sequestration—will be hard pressed for resources to maintain its operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention more limited efforts in places like Yemen, Libya and the Philippines.

 9. North Korean Terrorists Could Target U.S. Soil

It is not out of the realm of possibility that North Korea will try to launch saboteur/terrorist attacks on American soil, particularly against those seeking to undermine Kim Jong-Un.

Earlier this year, Kim Jong-Un used two assassins to murder a political rival using the VX biological weapon in a Malaysian airport. Think about how much of an escalation that is: A biological terrorist attack inside an airport in a foreign country. That means North Korea has loyal operatives who can sneak such deadly substances into other countries and are willing to risk their lives to commit murder on Kim Jong-Un’s behalf.

And the target was another North Korean from the top of society. Such operatives would have even less qualms about targeting Americans.

North Korea could collaborate with Islamist terrorists or criminal elements for an attack in America. After all, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps hoped to hide behind Mexican drug cartel members in its plan to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. by blowing up a diner.

10. The Worst of All Scenarios: EMP

Watch this Clarion Project short film from 2012 about the threat posed by a potential Electro-Magnetic Pulse attack by Iran. North Korea has the same capability. A top expert on nuclear weapons and EMPs, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, has been sounding the alarm that he believes North Korea is actually practicing carrying out such an attack on the U.S.

Should that happen and the attack succeed, North Korea will cripple the U.S. and perhaps win its war against America. And even if the U.S. destroyed North Korea in response, the jihadists will have won their war against America as the country struggles to survive as Islamists rampage across the planet.

Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.