Syria and North Korea: A Real Axis of Evil

Pyongyang's history with the Assad regime isn't getting enough attention.

In the spring of 2007, reports reached Washington concerning a covert North Korean operation in the Syrian desert. Senior members of Congress, including my former boss, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, raised alarm bells with the State Department’s Six-Party negotiators on North Korean denuclearization. How could Pyongyang negotiate in good faith on nuclear issues while at the same time assisting a state sponsor of terrorism in the construction of a copycat Yongbyon-like nuclear facility? Such concerns, however, were largely put aside as the process of the Six-Party negotiations took precedence over the disturbing facts on the ground. The Israelis, increasingly concerned over Washington’s foot-dragging on the issue, did the world a favor on September 6, 2007 by taking out the Syrian nuclear reactor in a surgical strike. NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), citing “unidentified South Korean intelligence officials,” reported that ten North Korean support staff may have died in that attack. Their remains were allegedly cremated and returned to North Korea.

Not only have North Koreans reportedly been killed in Syria due to Syrian–North Korean joint proliferation, but Syrians also have died in North Korea. In April 2004, according to a report in the World Tribune, "a dozen Syrian technicians" were killed in an explosion at the train station in Ryongchon, near the Chinese border. While some speculated that the blast involved an assassination attempt against then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose train had passed through the station only hours before, the consensus reached was that the explosion involved "a train car full of missiles and components" to be shipped to Syria and that the accompanying technicians were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, during a visit to Japan in May of 2010, publicly stated, according to the Associated Press, that North Korea, Syria and Iran are cooperating as a new "axis of evil" and “pose the biggest threat to world security because they are building and spreading weapons of mass destruction.” The foreign minister further noted that "We saw this kind of cooperation only two or maybe three months ago with the North Korean plane in Bangkok with huge numbers of different weapons with the intention to smuggle these weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.” Mr. Lieberman was making reference to a plane from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang seized by Thai authorities at Bangkok airport on December 12, 2009, which contained thirty-five tons of weapons.

North Korean-Syrian security ties go back decades. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, quoting Hong Kong press sources on June 11, reported that the hardline former North Korean defense minister, General Kim Kyok-sik, has been deeply involved in the Syria connection. Kim, who was recently purged, was the alleged mastermind behind the torpedoing of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in 2010. Kim Kyok-sik had served as assistant military attaché at the North Korean Embassy in Damascus in the nineteen seventies. At that time he reportedly directed joint Syrian-North Korean military training exercises.

That military joint cooperation apparently continues right up to the present day. The Chosun Ilbo report further quoted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in noting that “some dozen North Korean military officers were seen working with Syrian government troops on the northern battlefield of Halab (Aleppo)” during the current civil war. If, to quote Secretary of State John Kerry, Syrian government actions, including the reported use of chemical weapons, in this civil war represents a "moral obscenity," what is to be made of North Korean military and proliferation support which enables the Syrian regime's war machine?

The Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported on August 27 on the continuing cooperation of the Pyongyang-Damascus axis.The newspaper stated that “a Libyan-registered vessel, identified as Al En Ti Sar, left North Korea for Syria earlier this year" with a consignment of contraband. Quoting intelligence sources, it noted that Turkey had seized the shipment of gas masks, arms and ammunition.