North Korea Cannot Feed Its People, but Has Money for Weekly Missile Tests: How?

Despite crippling US sanctions, the Kim Jong-Un-led country has tested a flurry of missiles in recent weeks.

4 min read

North Korea has been dominating global headlines in recent weeks due to its weekly missile tests, which have sent neighbouring South Korea and Japan into a tizzy.

Its latest test was as recent as Wednesday, 9 November – it fired a ballistic rocket towards the sea near the country's east coast.

Last week, South Korea's military said that Pyongyang had fired a flurry of missiles, 30 of which landed in the sea off the Korean peninsula. This comes amid fears that North Korea is preparing for its first detonation of a nuclear device since 2017.

However, the recent military show of strength by the country begs the question of how it is able to afford testing so many missiles, despite crippling sanctions by western countries and the United Nations.


How Much Does a Typical Missile Test Cost?

Security analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation Soo Kim said that the cost of a single test by North Korea may range between a few million dollars to $10 million, according to AP.

Since the country has been conducting dozens of tests every week for the last few weeks, the public exchequer could be bleeding hundreds of millions on the orders of Kim Jong-Un over weeks, and billions over months.

Another expert, Lee Illwoo, said that it was actually impossible to know the cost incurred by North Korea on tests because of the country's secretive nature.

However, the fact that the country is still reeling from the financial wreckage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of food shortages, and its self-imposed isolation, it should ideally not be able to afford to flex its military muscles in such an extreme manner.

So how are they doing it?

Russia and China

As the popular saying goes, "Your enemy's enemy is your friend."

The greatest foes of the US – Russia and China – are said to be heavily aiding North Korea in its times of distress, and at the same time using the country as a bulwark against the US' allies, Japan and South Korea.


China is also North Korea's largest trading partner and ally, and contributes billions towards the economic and military development of the country.

Lee Illwoo says that the missiles could have been manufactured by North Korea itself, or China might have supplied them "at an extremely cheap price."

Russia is also said to be granting several defence deals to North Korea in the backdrop of the Ukraine war, including the purchase of a significant number of artillery shells. In return, the North may seek technology transfers and other supplies to modernise its military.

In a veiled reference to China and Russia, a US State Department spokesperson said that while the UN Security Council has passed multiple resolutions to establish a robust sanctions regime against North Korea, "it is incumbent upon all member states to fully implement these resolutions, and we will continue to call upon them to do so."


Cybercrime, Cheap Labour

According to analyst Soo Kim, illegal activities have also been contributing to the country's finances, such as cybercrimes, cryptocurrency hacking etc.

Further, the country has an incredibly disciplined and cheap workforce. Hence, their labour costs are quite minimal compared to other countries that spend heavily on their defence programmes, including missile development.

A study conducted by the North Korea Resources Institute in Seoul said in 2013 that North Korea is home to huge mineral resources, which could be worth as much as $6 trillion.

Failure of the US

On the other hand, some experts have blamed the US government for not doing enough to prevent China from enabling North Korea's sanctions violation.

"The (Joe) Biden administration’s most significant failure is its failure to prosecute or penalise the Chinese banks we know are laundering Kim Jong-Un’s money," Joshua Stanton, one such expert, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Anthony Ruggiero, who was in charge of the sanctions on North Korea under former US President Donald Trump's administration, said that the sanctions were pursued seriously only from the last year of Barack Obama's second term to the early half of Trump's second year.

However, they dropped off in the naive hope of progress following the 2018 Singapore summit between Trump and Kim.

What Is North Korea Trying to Gain Through the Tests? 

There are several reasons behind North Korea stepping up its missile tests in recent weeks.

While the country is known to conduct tests in violation of the UN's mandate from time to time, its current testing regime is unprecedented. The country has not conducted so many tests in such a short span of time in its history.

The amplified tests come in the backdrop of military exercises being carried out jointly by the US and South Korea.

North Korea argues that its tests represent a warning over the joint drills – which they view as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that North Korea has a staggering 1,000 ballistic missiles, which are far more than they need to continue pressuring Washington to provide sanctions relief and other concessions.

"What North Korea wants to demonstrate before 2024 (when the next US presidential election is due) is that its nuclear weapons arsenal is very advanced, has been completed and represents a much more significant threat than before," Myong-hyun said, as per AP.

Hence, it is crucial for them to maintain that threat perception with the US and assert that they won't suddenly quiet down, he added.

Lastly, every test that they conduct also offers data to their scientists on weapons development – which would help modernise their arsenal further.

(With inputs from AP and Reuters.)

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Topics:  North Korea   Missile   Kim Jong-Un 

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