More than 100 tonnes of a toxic chemical that can be used to make weapons of mass destruction were exported to North Korea by a South Korean businessman via China, the government said yesterday.
South Korea's Ministry of Commerce said the businessman exported 107 tonnes of sodium cyanide between June and September last year to an importer in Dandong, China, on the border with North Korea, without government approval.
The unidentified Chinese company re-exported the shipment to a North Korean trading firm, the ministry said in a statement.
Sodium cyanide is known as a dual-use chemical, one with important applications in various industries that include mining, where it is used as an agent to extract gold and silver and other precious metals from their ore.
But the chemical has a secondary and more sinister application as a precursor to lethal chemical weapons. Used against humans, nerve gas and blood agents produced by the chemical are known to cause agonizing death within minutes.
Because of the dual use, sodium cyanide is subject to multilateral export control regimes to which South Korea is a signatory. Following the admission, officials said oversight would be tightened to prevent further illegal exports.
"We are working on comprehensive measures to stop the loopholes in regulations aimed at preventing illegal exports of strategic materials," commerce ministry director Seo Young-Joo said.
The ministry said it first learned about the illegal shipments in October last year, the same month it reported the South Korean businessman to prosecutors.
The unidentified businessman received a jail sentence of 18 months suspended for two years in January.
The ministry said authorities were also checking a report that a Malaysian company exported 40 tonnes of the same chemical, 15 tonnes of which originated in South Korea, to North Korea last month.
Experts caution that little is known in detail about North Korea's chemical weapons capabilities because the Stalinist state shrouds them in secrecy.
However, North Korean chemical and biological weapons programs date back several decades, when they were seen as a cheap and easy route to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, according to South Korea's defense ministry.
The communist state has developed bulk quantities of nerve, blister, choking and blood agents, creating one of the world's biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons, according to US and South Korean intelligence sources.
Pyongyang embarked on biological weapons development in the early 1980s. The country has also boasted of a nuclear deterrent force, and Washington believes it has developed a small number of nuclear devices.
South Korea has exported a total of 146,000 tonnes of sodium cyanide to 10 countries, including China, Thailand, Russia and Indonesia, since 2002. China was the largest importer, buying 42,300 tonnes. The ministry said it was now working on a new online system through which traders can easily identify strategic items subject to export controls and receive government permission for shipment of sensitive materials.