Despite heavy sanctions, North Korea is able to develop relatively advanced nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The country has had 5 successful nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent of which this past September. Experts estimate the September test to have destructive power equal to or greater than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. North Korea claims they have the ability to put a nuclear device such as this on a ballistics missile but that has yet to be proven. We do know that last month a high-thrust rocket engine was successfully tested, bringing the country closer to its goal of long-range nuclear ballistic missiles.
North Korea has been able to afford this costly technology developement programs by avoiding the UN imposed sanctions with increasing scale and ingenuity. The country has developed a complicated scheme of front companies that trick well-intentioned firms and countries into doing business illegally. The country uses false-flag schemes and deceptive addresses such as “PY city” instead of Pyongyang with the names of real South Korean business people.
One of the more lucrative illegal trade operations North Korea conducts is in military goods and services. North Korea offers a cheaper alternative for African nations who may not be able to afford gear from other countries. African countries also tend to have lesser documentation and enforcement of international sanctions, making the transactions hard to identify.
For example, approximately 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades headed for the Suez Canal were found hidden under iron ore while flying under the Cambodian flag. The final destination of this shipment is still unknown. Military radio communications equipment was found headed for Eritrea, the 2nd time Eritrea has been caught trading goods with North Korea. Countries like Uganda and Angola have been known to receive training from North Korean military personnel.
Even with the income from illegal trade, the nuclear ballistic missile program places a great financial burden on the country. With an estimated GDP per capita of $1,800 (2014 est.) North Korea’s expensive military programs place a great hardship on its citizens. Apparently, Kim Jong Un places a higher importance on developing a nuclear arsenal than feeding his people. The World Food Program provides tons of food aid to the country every year and estimates 70% of the population is food insecure.