Since giving a presentation on North Korea’s missile trade last month in Seoul at the Asan Plenum, I’ve had a couple of requests to explain the data sources more precisely. Much of the curiosity stems from an article in the English-language online edition of the Chosun Ilbo that attributed the data to “a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.” Well, not exactly. Good luck finding any report like that.
OK, then. Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about where the numbers come from. Seriously, you’ve been warned.
For aficionados of CRS, the headline of this post has already given half the game away. Richard F. Grimmett’s annual reports, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,” contain a heap of unique data on, well, what the title says. (The reports state that they contain “official, unclassified, background data from US government sources.”) And they’re my source for how many complete missile systems North Korea is known to have delivered abroad, to what regions, in what years.
(Prior to 1995, the reports were called “Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World.” Prior to 1991, they were called “Trends in Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World by Major Supplier.” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.)
Still, one thing the Grimmett reports won’t tell you is very much specifically about North Korea. Getting from Grimmett’s raw data to a reconstruction of North Korean missile deliveries took a heap of work, to use a technical term. The results appear as Table 1 in “Ballistic Trajectory: The Evolution of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Market,” which appears in the current issue of the Nonproliferation Review. You can download it free of charge.
The best things in life are free, they always say.
A Peek Inside the Sausage Factory
Ballistic missiles appear in the Grimmett reports as “surface-to-surface” missiles, or SSMs. (It appears that this category has yet to capture any cruise missiles, which either count as anti-ship missiles or have been excluded by virtue of being air-launched.) The first step was to figure out which figures in this category could be attributed to North Korea. Of the six categories of arms sellers — U.S., Russia, China, Major West European, All Other European, and All Others — just three are recorded as delivering SSMs: Russia, China, and All Others. Based on an extensive, iron-rich diet of missile-related readings, I’ve concluded that the “All Others” SSM numbers for 1987 through 2009 correspond to North Korea. Why 1987? See especially Joe Bermudez’s paper from 1999 on the history of the North Korean missile program.
The second step was processing Grimmett’s numbers. Each report covers the prior eight years, and contains tables with two four-year bins for arms deliveries to each region of the globe, e.g., 2002-2005 and 2006-2009. The earliest available period involving a sane definition of SSMs (i.e., one that excludes anti-tank missiles!) is 1984-1987, which enables reconstruction of figures starting from 1984.
Naturally, each bin repeats four years after its initial appearance. For example, there’s a 1991-1994 bin in the 1995 report, and the same thing again in the 1999 report. The numbers in these repeated bins aren’t fully consistent, indicating retrospective updates in the underlying database. I resolved these inconsistencies in favor of the more recent reports.
The third step was to convert the four-year bins into annual data. This started with exercises in logic. For example, there were (about) 90 SSMs delivered from “All Others” to the Near East in 1992-1995, (about) 30 SSMs in 1993-1996, and zero in 1994-1997. It’s a straightforward inference that there were about 60 deliveries in 1992 (the difference between 90 and 30), about 30 deliveries in 1993, and none thereafter through 1997.
Unfortunately, the data contained a few irresolvable inconsistencies. After struggling with alternative interpretations, I opted for whatever reconstruction tended to favor more recent reports while minimizing the overall “error,” again on the assumption that retrospective updates were responsible for the apparent problem. The differences between interpretations are small in any case, and the inconsistencies were few to begin with. But reader beware: because of the retrospective-updating phenomenon, recent numbers should be considered provisional. As subsequent Grimmett reports appear, I might get around to revising the table. Watch this space.
The Soviet Scud Question
To get a fuller picture of the global missile market, I carried out these steps not only for North Korea but also Russia and China. All three appear in the paper in Table 1. The Soviet figures contain an oddity: a staggering 1,660 SSM deliveries to “Asia” from 1989 to 1991. These figures correspond to the appearance of Scud missiles on the battlefield in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet ground troops in 1988. Did the Soviets really export that many missiles over such a short period?
In the end, I discounted these numbers, a choice supported by reports that “all functions connected with the security, transportation, storage and launch of Scud missiles [in Afghanistan] are handled by Soviet advisers.” In other words, they weren’t exports at all, but were missiles operated abroad by Red Army troops. A book co-authored by a retired ISI Brigadier, Mohammed Yousaf, makes essentially the same claim.
How long that situation persisted is less clear. An article by Bermudez in the February 1992 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review dated the arrival of the Scuds to October 1988, commenting that “there is little doubt that at this time that the ‘Scuds’ were under the direct operational control of the Soviets, who conducted all fire missions.” But it isn’t apparent whether unused missiles might have been left with the Afghan military after the abrupt withdrawal of the “advisers,” which Bermudez dates to November 1991. Regardless, this wasn’t the actual subject of the paper, so even including all 1,660 SSMs wouldn’t have changed any of its conclusions. Although it would interfere with claims like “40% of Missiles in Developing World Came from N.Korea.”
I’ll let Jeffrey tackle the question of whether any deliveries are missing from the China column.
On a Personal Note
Thanks to those who made it possible to do this research and to present it. Thanks also to the voters who picked my article as the winner of the first online reader survey at the Nonproliferation Review. However much other recent evidence might suggest otherwise, democracy clearly is the best system.
Update. See also “North Korea’s Shrinking Role in the Global Missile Market,” now live at 38North.org. It details recent interceptions of arms shipments from North Korea, discusses Burma’s apparent emergence as a new customer, and identifies new ballistic missile suppliers, actual or potential.
Late Update. “Missile control: A multi-decade experiment in nonproliferation,” is now live at TheBulletin.org. It builds on this research to uncover what has worked to stop missile proliferation, what hasn’t, and what lessons could be drawn from that for related challenges.
Another Update | Sept. 1, 2011. FAS has just posted a complete run of the Grimmett reports from 1982 through 2010. Now you can roll your own version of Table 1, if you like.