Yesterday, a story hit the Reuter’s wire that China had intercepted over 150 pounds of vanadium destined for North Korea. China customs agents found the material at a border crossing tucked under fruit in a produce truck, local reporters suggest. Vanadium, a rare earth metal, is banned from North Korea thanks to U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to cut off the North’s arms trade, according to Reuters. Besides being one of the hardest metals, what is Vanadium and why should we care about keeping it out of North Korea’s hands?
According to the Vanadium Producers Reclaimers Organization, the metal is a critical enabler of lightweight weapons systems when alloyed with steel (vs. conventional carbon steels). The association suggests that vanadium enables higher strength steel ” allowing up to a 40% reduction in mass for equivalent strength in equipment and structures. Today, Some quantity of vanadium is used in virtually every structural application in the military where steel products are employed. For instance, The US military has been using vanadium to either increase armor or reduce the weight of current combat vehicles, tactical vehicles, tactical bridges, material handling equipment, aircraft, watercraft, rail, trailers, steel structures, and virtually every application involving the use of steel.
When it comes to advanced weapons applications, vanadium, when alloyed with titanium, is commonly used in nuclear applications, missile casings and jet engines. In other words, not only is it a metal that North Korea needs to build and sustain its own military industrial complex for domestic defense purposes, it’s an essential metal required for numerous applications in North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons proliferation efforts.
One wonders how much of the material China knowingly (or unknowingly) lets across its borders and why, in this case, they opted to announce the interception of it.
Update: For additional musings on the trade and policy implications of this seizure as well as China/North Korea relations, get on over to MetalMiner affiliate site Spend Matters which just covered the story from a different angle.