On February 2, the United Nations released a report revealing that North Korea supplied ballistic missile technology and at least 40 shipments of chemical weapons-related material to Syria from 2012-2017. This report highlighted the challenges associated with implementing UN sanctions against North Korea and renewed speculation among U.S. policymakers about the revival of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
While the extent of North Korea’s commercial relationship with Syria surprised many observers, analysts who closely follow Pyongyang’s Middle East strategy were unsurprised by the persistence of North Korean military links to the Syrian government. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, North Korea has been consistently one of Syria’s closest international allies, and has provided rhetorical, technical, and direct military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to retain power.
At a rhetorical level, North Korean officials have consistently praised Assad’s leadership qualities and expressed solidarity with his military crackdowns against Syrian opposition factions. This expression of support can be explained by North Korea’s admiration for Assad’s Baathist ideology and resistance to the United States’ efforts to overthrow his embattled regime.
One of the first demonstrations of North Korea’s solidarity with Assad occurred in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. On November 16, 2012, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un released a statement via Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) that praised Syria’s Baath Party takeover in 1970 as a transformative event that guaranteed Syria’s sovereignty and began an era of prosperity for the Syrian people.
Even as the Syrian civil war has resulted in an economic collapse and the expulsion of millions of refugees, North Korea’s praise for Assad’s leadership has remained unchanged. In April 2017, the North Korean government congratulated Assad on the 70th anniversary of the Syrian Baath Party’s founding, and expressed support for Assad against U.S. efforts to overthrow his regime. The Syrian government responded to this show of support for Assad by praising North Korea for its loyalty to the Baathist regime in September 2017.
Although both Syrian and North Korean officials have insisted that pro-Assad rhetoric from Pyongyang has not been accompanied by military support, there is compelling evidence that the Syria-North Korea nexus runs deeper than official statements would imply. Since 2013, there have been numerous reports that North Korea has sent combat troops, or at the very least, engineers and technical advisers to Syria to strengthen Assad’s hold on power and assist his counterinsurgency efforts against opposition forces.
The Syrian government’s requests for North Korean military assistance can be explained by two principal factors. First, North Korea has extensive experience providing counterinsurgency support for authoritarian regimes facing internal unrest. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea has deployed technical advisers and military personnel to foreign conflict zones to ensure that its elite military forces gain battlefield experience to complement their years of military training.
Over the past three decades, sub-Saharan Africa has been the principal destination for these troop deployments. North Korean troops backed Angola’s left-wing MPLA government during the 1980s, supported Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s crackdown on Joshua Nkomo’s resistance movement from 1983-1987, and assisted the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s President Joseph Kabila’s efforts to restore political stability. North Korea’s experience helping African authoritarian leaders maintain domestic state order was viewed favorably by the Assad regime, which lacked large-scale international ground support prior to Iran’s mass deployment of Revolutionary Guard forces in 2015.
Second, decades of Syria-North Korea military cooperation gave Pyongyang an intimate understanding of Syria’s military terrain that can only be matched by that of Damascus’s long-standing allies, Russia and Iran. Since the 1960s, North Korea has maintained a small-scale military footprint in Syria, and North Korean troops gained combat experience on Syrian territory during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. North Korean engineers have also assisted the Syrian military’s modernization efforts, and helped develop Syria’s nuclear program in the years leading up to Israel’s 2007 Operation Orchard airstrike near Deir ez-Zor.
In addition to North Korea’s experience providing military assistance to the Syrian government, Pyongyang maintains close links with Assad’s two principal ground force military allies: Iran and Hezbollah. The North Korean military has cooperated effectively with Iran’s armed forces since Pyongyang assisted Tehran’s efforts to withstand Iraqi military incursions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
North Korea has also been a major supplier of rockets and missiles to Hezbollah since the 1980s, and provided the Lebanese Shiite organization with critical military support in the lead-up to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. These alliances have made North Korea uniquely qualified to assist Syrian government military efforts, and have ensured that North Korean military forces have been able to integrate seamlessly into the pro-Assad coalition.
While North Korea’s rhetorical and military assistance to Assad has often been viewed as largely symbolic, rather than substantive in its impact, Pyongyang’s role as a potential chemical weapons supplier to the Syrian government has led to concerns that North Korea could have a decisive role in entrenching Assad’s hold on power. These concerns have been substantiated by the close links between the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), North Korea’s arms export body, and Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which produces chemical weapons.
The interception of two KOMID export stocks to Syria in August 2017 fueled speculation that these links remain intact, in spite of denials from Assad and Russia that the Syrian government is seeking to produce new chemical weapons stocks. North Korea’s provisions of artillery rockets and ballistic missiles to Syria are also critical components of the KOMID-SSRC trade pact, so Pyongyang could assist Syria’s chemical weapons program indirectly through the sale of delivery mechanisms, even if it ultimately proves unable to ship nerve agents to Syria.
While the exact extent of North Korea’s involvement in the Syrian civil war remains shrouded in secrecy and speculation, Pyongyang’s rhetorical support for the Assad regime, presence of military advisers in Syria, and potential to act as a chemical weapons supplier to Syria make it a dangerous security threat. If Russia and Iran ultimately draw down their military support for Assad as the combat phase of the Syrian civil war progresses to a political settlement, Syria’s isolated regime could continue relying on North Korea for military assistance for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.