A high-level North Korean delegation traveled to Nigeria and offered to sell the country advanced missile technology, according to the Nigerian government.
But Seoul's Unification Ministry downplayed the move as a bargaining tactic to raise the stakes in the nuclear standoff with the United States.
"I see the missile offer as part of its tactics to arouse anxiousness from the United States ahead of the second round of six-nation talks on the North's nuclear issue," Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said Thursday.
In a meeting with Nigeria's Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Yang Hyong Sop, the vice president of North Korea's Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, proposed to sign a "memorandum of understanding towards developing missile technology, and training and manufacture of ammunition," Atiku's office said. North Koreans showed their Nigerian military counterparts a "catalog of what they have," it said.
The SPA Presidium is North Korea's highest decision-making body. Yang is its No. 2 man after Kim Yong Nam who serves as the country's ceremonial head of state.
The North Korean delegates have made "a lot of offers including training of army personnel, defense cooperation and missile technology, but definitely nothing to do with nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction," said Onukaba Ojo, Atiku's spokesman.
The Nigerian vice president "assured that government would continue to cooperate with the (North) Korean government in the defense sector, an area in which both Nigeria and North Korea have cooperated over the years," Atiku's spokesman said.
North Korea has maintained close ties with Nigeria since they concluded an accord on military cooperation in 1992, a year after Pyongyang's defense minister made a groundbreaking visit to Lagos.
If the missile deal goes through, Nigeria would be North Korea's first known sub-Saharan partner. Some Middle Eastern countries, such as Libya, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, have reportedly received North Korea's help with either missiles or missile technology.
North Korea, which has developed missiles capable of carrying warheads as far as Japan, is cited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as the world's largest exporter of ballistic missiles.
According to Seoul's Defense Ministry, North Korea exported $60 million worth of Scud missiles and parts to Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Iran in 2002. Between 1999 and 2001, Pyongyang sold $50 million in missile parts to Yemen, Pakistan and Syria, it said. The United States alleges that North Korea reaped about $560 million from missile sales in 2001.
North Korea earns badly needed hard currency from missile sales and illicit drug deals. It tested its long-range ballistic missiles over the Pacific in 1998. Scud-type missiles deployed by Iran, Iraq and Syria are nearly all derived from North Korean technology, according to South Korean defense officials.
But many analysts in Seoul are skeptical about the missile deal between North Korea and Nigeria.
"Nigeria will refrain from receiving missiles or missile technology from North Korea because it is sure to annoy the United States," said Cheon Seong-whun, a researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification, a government-run think tank. "Nigeria would not dare meet the same fate as Iraq's Saddam Hussein," he said.
Actually, Nigeria said it bought weapons from "many countries" to protect its territory, but no deal had yet been struck with North Korea. "This is just a memorandum of understanding. No action has been taken yet," Atiku's spokesman said.
The U.S. State Department already cautioned Nigeria against dealing with North Korea. "We'd welcome a decision to turn down any such offers from North Korea," said spokesman Richard Boucher. "We want to stop North Korea's missile activities. And we've gone to many countries to try to encourage them not to buy."
It would be unusual for a country to go public about such an offer and "this indicates Nigeria is not interested in North Korean missiles," Cheon said.
North Korea's state-run media confirmed Yang's talks with the Nigerian vice president, but did not say anything about its missile offer.
"North Korea itself also knows well about Nigeria's reluctance to buy missiles," Cheon said.
He said the North is trying to draw U.S. attention because it has failed to win concessions from the Bush administration on the nuclear issue.
"With the renewed missile card, the North intends to counter U.S. pressure over its nuclear ambitions and force Washington to offer concessions to break the nuclear impasse," Cheon said.