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“These cover materials not only act to obfuscate shipments, but really highlights the way that licit North Korean businesses are being used to facilitate North Korean illicit activity,” said David Thompson, a senior analyst and investigator of North Korean financial schemes for the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington.

“It is this nesting which makes this illicit activity so hard to identify.” With North Korea’s other profitable enterprises being hurt by international sanctions, Thompson said, such exports are now “likely more important than ever.” Even by North Korean standards, the Jie Shun was a veritable rust bucket. The desalination system had stopped working, judging from crates of water bottles officials would find strewn around the crew compartments.

It was, as a United Nations report later concluded, the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” But who were the rockets for? investigation uncovered a complex arrangement in which Egyptian business executives ordered millions of dollars worth of North Korean rockets for the country’s military while also taking pains to keep the transaction hidden, according to U. officials and Western diplomats familiar with the findings. Whether North Korea was ever paid for the estimated million rocket shipment is unclear.

The Jie Shun’s final secret would take months to resolve and would yield perhaps the biggest surprise of all: The buyers were the Egyptians themselves. The incident, many details of which were never publicly revealed, prompted the latest in a series of intense, if private, U. complaints over Egyptian efforts to obtain banned military hardware from Pyongyang, the officials said. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U. But the episode illustrates one of the key challenges faced by world leaders in seeking to change North Korea’s behavior through economic pressure. [How has North Korea managed to make rapid gains in its missile program?

North Korean-made rifles have even been recovered from the bodies of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, although U. officials believe the guns were probably looted from stocks sold to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi years earlier.

Still other customers look to North Korea as one of the last suppliers of low-cost parts and ammunition for older weapons systems that are scarcely found in commercial markets. aid recipient that still maintains diplomatic ties and has a history of military-to-military ties dating back to the 1970s with Pyongyang, said Berger, the Middlebury researcher.

Ships that ferried artillery rockets and tank parts to distant ports changed their names and registry papers so they could sail under a foreign flag.

The demand for discount North Korean weapons would continue long after the Soviet Union collapsed, and even after North Korea came under international censure and economic isolation because of its nuclear weapons program, said Andrea Berger, a North Korea specialist and senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif.

North Korea has been selling small arms around the world to bring in the hard currency it needs to survive.

(Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images) Over time, the small-arms trade has emerged as a reliable source of cash for a regime with considerable expertise in the tactics of running contraband, including the use of “false flag” shipping and the clever concealment of illegal cargo in bulk shipments of legitimate goods such as sugar or — as in the case of the Jie Shun — a giant mound of loose iron ore.

But digging beneath stone and tarp, the inspectors found wooden crates — stacks of them.

Asked about the boxes, the crew produced a bill of lading listing the contents, in awkward English, as “assembly parts of the underwater pump.” But after the last of the 79 crates was unloaded and opened at Egypt’s al-Adabiyah port, it was clear that this was a weapons shipment like none other: more than 24,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and completed components for 6,000 more.

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