Since the early 2000's, North Korea has been implicated in a number of international arms smuggling conspiracies involving fighter jets, MANPADs, conventional small arms & even nuclear technology.
These conspiracies have involved the DPRK as both a buyer and a seller. Such as in 2013 when a North Korean ship was intercepted in Panama bound for North Korea with several containers laden with antiquated fighter jets, surface to air missiles and spare MiG engines. The weapons were purchased in Cuba, and the Cuban government later claimed these weapons weren't being sold to the DPRK but were instead going to the hermit kingdom to undergo repairs with the intention of being returned.
Understandably, the North Korean crew reacted emotionally to being arrested. With the captain reportedly attempting to commit suicide as police units sought to inspect the cargo hold, where the weapons containers had been loaded into and buried beneath several tonnes of brown sugar.
In another example, several North Korean weapons were intercepted throughout 2009 in places like Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Myanmar.
The majority of these ships and cargo planes were found flying under the flags of other countries like Georgia and the Bahamas with crews from Kazakhstan, Belarus and China.
The UN imagined they were bound for Iran so that they could then be distributed to Iranian aligned militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Others like officials from Thailand suspected the weapons might be bound for Afghanistan or Pakistan, whom North Korea has also been speculated of helping.
The majority of these weapons were small arms. Kalashnikovs, DPRK licensed RPG's, grenades, surface-to-air missile launchers and 122mm rockets.
More recently in 2016, a North Korean ship flying a Cambodian flag was intercepted while carrying at least 24,000 rocket propelled grenades which were bound for Egypt. It was reported as the largest seizure of munitions under UN imposed sanctions to date, and was suspected of being intended for the Egyptian Army with a value of nearly $30Mn CAD.
Here we see just a handful of cases wherein clandestine arms deals have been intercepted by authorities, but how many more go hidden under the radar? North Korea has been suspected of arming Iran, Syria and a variety of Middle Eastern countries for decades now - and has a suspected revenue of well over $1Bn annually from their endeavours.
Given the illegalities of these transactions, routes plotted by North Korean ships and planes baring arms are usually complex and convoluted. With ships flying the flags of a number of different states and containers changing vessels a number of times throughout the voyage.
Crews are only sometimes North Koreans as well, with the regime utilizing members of allied nations and possibly even seasoned arms trafficking syndicates to mitigate suspicion and chances of being caught out.