Syria and North Korea: A Real Axis of Evil

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.

Veteran journalist and North Korea watcher Claudia Rosett in a recent article in Forbes again quoted the Chosun Ilbo in noting that "an unnamed diplomatic source" had stated that not only had North Korea transferred to Syria the technology for producing chemical warheads, but that North Korea has been continuously providing Syrian chemical weapons facilities with “after-sales services.” This June 17, a Chosun Ilbo report further noted that “in November 2009, a cargo ship bound for Syria was caught at Piraeus Port in Greece carrying North Korean chemical weapons-related materials, including about 20,000 pieces of protective clothing for atomic, biological and chemical warfare.” The article also quoted “another diplomatic source” as claiming “that it is 'most likely' that chemical weapons used by Syrian government troops were produced with North Korean technology.” During the current international crisis arising from the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it would seem that determination of the point of origin of those weapons would be of utmost importance.

North Korea is known to have one of the world's largest chemical-weapons stockpiles, with weapons ready to be loaded into mortars to rain down on short notice on Seoul, one of the world's great metropolises. A U.S. Department of Defense report released earlier this year, titled Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, states "North Korea probably has had a longstanding Chemical Weapons (CW) program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents and likely possesses a CW stockpile. North Korea probably could employ CW agents by modifying a variety of conventional munitions, including artillery and ballistic missiles. In addition, North Korean forces are prepared to operate in a contaminated environment; they train regularly in chemical defense operations. North Korea is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention."

In October 2008, in a triumph of "process for the sake of process," the George W. Bush Administration removed North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. This was despite previous public assurances, given by former Counter-terrorism Ambassador Cofer Black among others, to our Japanese ally that Pyongyang would not be removed from the list until the Japanese abduction issue was sufficiently addressed. The justification for the removal was that Pyongyang had given verbal assurances that it would accept a transparent verification regime for its denuclearization. Two months later, in December 2008, the Six-Party talks collapsed when Pyongyang reneged on these assurances. Almost five years later, the talks have yet to reconvene.

Whatever the final outcome of the current crisis over the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, one thing is clear: Pyongyang has been an enabler of the Syrian state sponsor of terrorism in its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It has supported its ally in Damascus in the construction of an aborted nuclear facility, reportedly on the battlefield in Aleppo, and in the procurement of missiles and chemical weapons. Is not the sponsor of a state sponsor of terrorism also a supporter of terrorism? Given Pyongyang's many documented activities in support of the regime in Damascus, it is high time for the Obama administration to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. If not, the list will lose all meaning and relevance.

Dennis P. Halpin is a former Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, former U.S. consul in Pusan, and former professional staff member, for more than twelve years, with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins University).