By JAY SOLOMON
SEOUL—A North Korean arms chief and Pyongyang's former ambassador to the United Nation's nuclear agency have emerged as key figures in an intensifying international effort to curb North Korea's weapons-trading activities.
The global dealings of the two men, Chun Byung-ho and Yun Ho-jin, whom North Korea analysts believe to be related through marriage, date back to the 1980s. They have played leading roles in North Korea's development and testing of atomic weapons, according to current and former U.S. officials, Asian intelligence analysts and U.N. nonproliferation staffers.
More troubling to officials, Messrs. Chun and Yun also oversee Pyongyang's vast arms-trading network, which appears to be spreading. They have shipped components for long-range missiles, nuclear reactors and conventional arms to countries including Iran,
Syria and Myanmar.
On Monday, the Obama administration announced economic sanctions against various individuals and entities involved in Pyongyang's nuclear work and in alleged illicit trading activities. The Treasury Department named Mr. Yun and the North Korean body headed by Mr. Chun—the Second Economic Committee of Pyongyang's ruling Korean Workers' Party. The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of those named and bar Americans from conducting business with them. Treasury also warned that foreign firms doing business with them risked sanctions.
The Second Economic Committee oversees a little-known foreign trade office with the Orwellian name of Office 99. The proceeds from the Office's arms sales go directly to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Pyongyang's senior leadership, according to these officials and recent North Korean defectors.
"It is broadly believed that the Second Economic Committee...plays the largest and most prominent role in nuclear, other WMD and missile-related development programs, as well as arranging and conducting arms-related exports" for North Korea, says a report issued in May by the U.N. committee tasked with enforcing international sanctions on Pyongyang.
The U.S. and U.N. recently have intensified efforts to combat the Second Economic Committee and Office 99, alarmed by Pyongyang's two nuclear-weapons tests and its alleged role in sinking a South Korean naval vessel in March. Last year, the U.N. formally sanctioned Mr. Yun and his arms company, Namchongang Trading Co.
North Korean arms shipments moving through Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and the South China Sea have been seized or turned back by the U.S. and its allies over the past few years. A Japanese court convicted a Tokyo-based trading company in November of procuring military technologies for Pyongyang with the intent of shipping them to Myanmar.
Still, Messrs. Chun and Yun's decades of experience in the weapons trade pose a challenge to an international community keen to disrupt Pyongyang's proliferation activities, say U.S. and Asian officials. "There is no reason to assume that Chun and Yun won't sell nuclear weapons," says David Asher, a former Bush administration official who has tracked Pyongyang's arms trade for a decade. "There needs to be an active effort to disrupt their WMD networks and drive them out of business now, before it's too late."
The two men have established a network of front companies in Asia, Europe and the Middle East and have partnered with Southeast Asian, Japanese and Taiwanese criminal syndicates to move cash and contraband, say U.S. officials. And Mr. Yun has used the political cover provided by Pyongyang's closest ally, China, to openly conduct business in cities such as Beijing and Shenyang, drawing official rebukes from Washington.
North Korean diplomats at Pyongyang's U.N. mission in New York did not respond to requests for comment. Messrs. Chun and Yun couldn't be reached.
Current and former U.S. officials say North Korea's operations resemble in both scale and tactics those of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan—one of the most notorious arms dealers in recent years. U.S. officials fear that isolated North Korea, desperate for hard currency, could accelerate its arms exports in a bid to prop up Kim Jong Il's finances.
Mr. Chun, now 84 years old, and his Second Economic Committee emerged as major global arms exporters in the 1980s, as North Korea shipped as much as $3 billion worth of rockets, pistols and submarines to Tehran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, say recent defectors and North Korea analysts.
Pyongyang assisted some communist and socialist countries militarily during the 1960s and 1970s, and provided fighter pilots to aid Egypt and Syria in their wars against Israel. But North Korea found a largely captive market in Iran, which faced a U.S.-led weapons embargo as the West threw its support behind Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
One senior North Korean defector who worked in Pyongyang's munitions industries says he was dispatched to Iran by the Second Economic Committee in 1987 with the task of constructing missile batteries on the Iranian island of Kish to help Tehran better control the movement of ships through the Straits of Hormuz.
His main interlocutor was Iran's elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The former hydro-mechanic says camaraderie developed between his 100-man team and the Guard, despite their different backgrounds.
Mr. Chun's control over the Second Economic Committee was tied to his close relationship with Pyongyang's ruling Kim family, say defectors and North Korea experts. The Russian-trained bureaucrat served as a member of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung's bodyguard unit. He rose up the ranks of the Korean Workers' Party with the political support of Kim Jong Il, eventually securing a position on Pyongyang's most powerful political body, the National Defense Commission.
North Korea's high-level defector, Hwang Jang-yop, has identified Mr. Chun as the broker of a key barter trade in the 1990s with Pakistan that significantly advanced Pyongyang's nuclear infrastructure. The agreement resulted in North Korea shipping parts for long-range missiles to Islamabad in exchange for A.Q. Khan sending centrifuge equipment used in producing nuclear fuel.
As Mr. Chun pushed forward North Korea's nuclear program from Pyongyang, Mr. Yun, believed to be the husband of Mr. Chun's second daughter, emerged as a key player in procuring technologies for the Second Economic Committee from Europe, according to U.S., U.N. and European officials.
Mr. Yun, 66, arrived in Vienna in 1985 as Pyongyang's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The English and German speaker led negotiations with the U.N. agency aimed at forging a nuclear-inspection agreement with North Korea, and he helped oversee a 1992 tour of his nation's Yongbyon nuclear facility for Hans Blix, the IAEA's then-managing director.
"Yun was dedicated to turning things around. I truly believe that," says Willi Theis, who worked closely with Mr. Yun as the head of the IAEA's safeguards unit overseeing North Korea. Mr. Theis is now retired.
Still, concerns grew inside the IAEA about Mr. Yun's activities, as relations between Pyongyang and the international community deteriorated, according to IAEA officials.
In 1993, North Korea broke off talks with the IAEA over the agency's demands for an inspection of the country's nuclear operations, and the U.S. charged Pyongyang with secretly stockpiling plutonium for atomic weapons. The next year, the Clinton administration threatened to bomb the Yongbyon facility if North Korea didn't explain where the plutonium had gone. Mr. Yun grew embittered with the diplomatic process and mistrustful of the U.S. and its allies, according to IAEA staff and journalists who met with him.
Mr. Theis says he spent hours discussing the process with Mr. Yun and pressed the Agency to remain engaged with Pyongyang. The West German-born nuclear inspector says he grew suspicious of Mr. Yun's many trips to other European cities and his contacts with local companies. Mr. Yun even hinted to Mr. Theis that he might have no choice but to directly support North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs if relations with the IAEA collapsed.
"He came to the conclusion that dealing with the international community was totally disappointing," said Mr. Theis in a phone interview from Austria. "Mr. Yun had definitely learned how to establish contacts with all types of people [while in Vienna]—not just from the IAEA, but managers of companies."
Mr. Theis's concerns about Mr. Yun would be borne out in 2003, when a German businessman, Hans Werner Truppel, was arrested and eventually convicted by a Stuttgart court of selling 22 metric tons of aluminum tubes to Mr. Yun.
The North Korean and his company, Namchongang Trading, used offices in Beijing and Shenyang, China, to place orders for the equipment, which is critical to building centrifuges needed to enrich uranium, according to a German Customs Bureau report. U.S. officials briefed on the case were alarmed that Mr. Yun conducted some of his business through the offices of Shenyang Aircraft Industry Co., a Chinese state-owned firm.
In the ensuing months, the State Department aired its concerns about Mr. Yun's activities to China's government, according to former U.S. officials. But Beijing took no action.
China's ministries of foreign affairs and commerce didn't respond to requests for comment. Shenyang Aircraft says it had no recollection of any dealings with Mr. Yun.
Messrs. Chun and Yun have sought to accelerate North Korea's weapons sales and procurement in recent years and allegedly have played important roles in strengthening Pyongyang's military ties to countries such as Syria and Myanmar, say current and former U.S. officials.
North Korea analysts believe most of these transactions have been conducted through Office 99, which they describe as an international sales office and slush fund for Kim Jong Il.
"Anything that has to do with the imports and exports of weapons flows through Office 99," says Oh Kongdan, a North Korea expert at Virginia's Institute of Defense Analyses, a Pentagon-funded think tank. "It's a royal patronage system."
U.S. officials say that since the late 1990s they detected through intelligence channels intensifying military cooperation between North Korea and Syria, focused on everything from the development of chemical weapons to missiles.
In September 2007, Israeli jets bombed a facility in eastern Syria that U.S. officials say was a nearly operational replica of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. As many as 10 North Koreans died in the Israeli attack, according to U.S. officials. Mr. Yun and Namchongang Trading are believed to have played a central role in brokering development of the facility.
"That particular company was all over the nuclear trade. There's no question about it," says John Bolton, who served as the Bush administration's top non-proliferation official. Both Syria and North Korea have denied cooperating on developing nuclear technologies.
Over the past two years, U.S. and U.N. officials have also voiced concerns about North Korea's deepening military ties with Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma.
North Korea engineers have helped Myanmar build a maze of fortified bunkers to house senior government officials and military installations, according to Burmese defectors and commercial satellite photos. Current and former U.S. officials say Washington has intervened to block the transfer of Scud missiles to Myanmar from Pyongyang.
In June, Japan's Ministry of Economy and Trade banned Tokyo-based Toko Boeki Trading Co. and device maker Riken Denshi from conducting international trade after three of their affiliated executives, one of them an ethnic Korean, were arrested trying to send machine tools on an export-control list to Myanmar using a dummy company in Malaysia. The equipment could be used to develop either ballistic missiles or centrifuges for a uranium-enrichment program, according to weapons experts. And the U.N. in its May report said it was examining "suspicious" ties between Mr. Yun's Namchongang Trading and Myanmar, possibly linked to these activities in Japan.
The Obama administration, in response, has announced a stepped-up campaign to block North Korea's ability to raise funds through the arms trade. In addition to the new sanctions, the Pentagon has said it will intensify the interdiction of ships and planes believed to be carrying North Korean arms.
Still, Mr. Theis and other North Korea experts believe that it is only through dialogue that the West will be able to curb the North's proliferation threat. Mr. Theis says he is recently lobbied the IAEA to allow him to return to Pyongyang to hold meetings with Mr. Yun. So far, he says, the IAEA hasn't agreed.