A North Korean diplomat reportedly told an Israeli diplomat in 1999 that Pyongyang would provide ballistic missile technology to Iran, a state sworn to destroy Israel, unless it paid up to the tune of $1 billion.
North Korea has a long and well documented history of providing weapons technology, including chemical and nuclear weapon infrastructure, to countries like Iran and Syria.
While Pyongyang commands a few dozen operational nuclear warheads, according to intelligence reports, its real threat to the world lies not in starting an outright nuclear war, but in selling nuclear weapons to states, or terrorists, that may use them.
It’s unclear if Israel ever paid North Korea’s blackmail, though Israel would later destroy an Iranian nuclear reactor that North Korea was suspected of helping build.
A test-launch of a North Korean ballistic missile.
North Korea selling nukes is a bigger threat than just building them
If North Korea launched a nuclear attack, it would swiftly find itself on the receiving end of more powerful, more precise nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear weapons serve mainly to deter attacks.
But because of North Korea’s decision to defy international law by testing and developing nuclear weapons, it finds itself under heavy sanctions and impoverished.
This leaves North Korea as a cash-hungry state with an excess of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. A terror group or fellow rogue state, seeing the legitimacy and national power nuclear weapons have bestowed upon North Korea, might seek to buy nuclear technology off Pyongyang.
While many experts generally expect North Korea to maintain the status quo with its nuclear weapons by using them mainly to deter enemies, it’s less clear that Iran, Syria, or especially a terror network would show such restraint.
“Depending on the demand, we certainly cannot exclude the possibility that North Korea will sell its nuclear weapons for cash,” said Nam Sung-wook, a former South Korean intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, who first reported on North Korea’s attempted blackmail.
The UN has concluded that North Korea has a long history of weapons cooperation with Iran and Syria, the US’s two foremost nation-state enemies in the Middle East. Iran’s stated goal is to destroy Israel, and while their conventional military offers them little hope of achieving that, nuclear weapons actually could do the job.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
Trump isn’t doing anything about this
The US under President Donald Trump has lowered the threat of outright nuclear war with North Korea following talks and a summit with Kim Jong Un, but no work towards denuclearization appears to have actually taken place.
North Korea has not shared with the US any details of its nuclear program, and the US has no specifics from the Kim regime on how many weapons it has or where it keeps them.
So despite Trump’s insistence that North Korea isn’t a threat anymore, there’s absolutely no way of knowing if Kim would provide nuclear weapons to aggressive states, or use that leverage to blackmail countries for fear of nuclear war.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.