The civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, has been a tragedy for millions of people, including refugees fleeing the violence and residents caught in the crossfire. But for North Korea’s ruling elite, the conflict has in many ways been a good thing.
Since the 1960s, North Korea has sold arms and equipment to Syria, and provided other sorts of military-to-military assistance, such as training and technical assistance. Of particular importance, Pyongyang has helped develop Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Today, North Korea, faced with United Nations sanctions over its ongoing missile and nuclear tests, denies providing such assistance to Syria. But evidence has emerged suggesting that in one way or another, via front companies and elaborate logistics, war materials from North Korea have ended up in Syria, ultimately enriching the Kim regime.
“It’s a gold mine for North Korea,” said Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor at Angelo State University in Texas who’s penned a handful of books on the country. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to North Korea—as long as Syria doesn’t fall, which could happen.”
Pyongyang has reportedly also supplied troops and advisors, who have gained valuable real-world experience from the Syrian conflict. Any lesson learned by the North Koreans in Syria, of course, could be applied to future battles on the Korean peninsula.
“Korean analysts should take note of how chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war because this is likely going to be a test-bed for future North Korean actions in a conflict with the South,” Bechtol noted in a 2015 research paper (pdf, p.1) entitled “North Korea and Syria: Partners in Destruction and Violence.”
North Korea and Syria have much in common. Both are dictatorial regimes and former clients of the Soviet Union. Both face economic sanctions imposed by the US, which considers them rogue states that sponsor terrorism. As such, they share similar anti-imperialist world views that help bind them together.
Those ties have proven resilient through the decades. The current leaders, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have sustained the strong relations set by their late fathers, Hafez al-Assad and Kim Jong-il, respectively. (Or by the grandfather, in the case of Kim Jong-un, with Pyongyang-Damascus relations going back to Kim Il-sung.)
Frequent visits, warm gestures, and correspondence between the regimes in Pyongyang and Damascus add to the sense of fraternity. While most of the world reacted in horror to Syria’s latest chemical attack on civilians, the Kim regime ignored the tragedy and instead sent a warm congratulatory note to the Assad regime on the anniversary of the ruling Ba’ath party’s establishment. The state-run Korean Central News Agency routinely recaps such notes between the two nations. (The lack of shock from Pyongyang wasn’t surprising: Defectors from North Korea have described horrific chemical experiments on humans in concentration camps holding political prisoners.)
“Syrians frequently visit North Korea because of arms deals, but these are events that get little to no publicity,” noted Bechtol in his paper.
But Pyongyang has needed to get creative to deliver goods to its customers, which it does mostly through shipping. In 2012 a UN report said that North Korea was, in violation of sanctions, still sending materials like artillery components to Syria but using “elaborate techniques” to avoid interception, including shipping goods through China and Malaysia.
Indeed, seizures of ships have provided some of the best clues about North Korean deliveries to Syria during the current conflict. In 2013, Turkish authorities intercepted a Libya-registered vessel headed to Syria. It contained arms, ammunition, and gas masks from North Korea. Authorities believed the supplies were meant to be offloaded in Turkey and sent overland to the Assad regime. That same year Syria killed hundreds of civilians in a chemical attack in Ghouta in the suburbs outside Damascus.
In May 2012 South Korean authorities seized a cargo ship bound for Syria laden with North Korean missile parts. The ship was registered in China.
It’s not just sea transport. In September 2012 Iraq denied permission for a Syria-bound North Korean plane to pass through its airspace, due to suspicions it was transporting weapons to the Assad regime.
Front companies help North Korea, too. In February a UN report revealed that North Korean intelligence agents were selling battlefield radio equipment to various customers through a Malaysian front company called Glocom.
As Bechtol observed:
North Korea has become a key aspect of the support that the current Assad regime needs to survive and fight on against the rebels. The DPRK is also benefitting a great deal from the civil war in Syria. If a nation is fighting a war, it must use artillery, tanks, ballistic missiles, small arms of all kinds, ammunition, and yes (in the case of the Assad regime), WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. As the war continues (if it does so), these expensive and vital items must be replaced and/or refurbished. Thus, Syria has gone from being one of North Korea’s most important customers for many years, to being almost on par with Iran as an important customer for Pyongyang.
Boots on the ground
In 2013 the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that over a dozen North Korean helicopter pilots were hired by an Assad regime contending with defections among its own pilots. It also said Arabic-speaking North Korean officers were in the field providing logistical and planning support, as well as supervising artillery bombardments.
Last year, a leader of the Syrian rebels, Asaad al-Zoubi, told Russian media that two North Korean units were fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, describing them as “fatally dangerous.”
North Korean advisors also appear to have played a role. Indeed, “given the history of DPRK-Syrian relations, despite what the North might say in public, it would be surprising if the North had not dispatched a small contingent of military advisors and instructors to aid the brotherly Assad regime in its fight against the anti-government rebels,” wrote political scientist Alexandre Mansourov in late 2013 on 38 North, an analysis website affiliated with the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
In an interview with NK News in January, Syria’s ambassador to North Korea, Tammam Sulaiman, denied that scientists and weapons experts from North Korea aided the Damascus government in the early part of the war.
The benefits for Pyongyang of boots on the ground are numerous, Mansourov noted. Soldiers get “real-world” experience. Technical advisors gain insights on how equipment behaves in the field. Officers get battlefield intelligence on Western arms, and exposure to the tactics of rebels trained by the US and its allies. (Not to be overlooked, Mansourov added: Should the Assad regime fail, “there is no doubt that North Korean military advisors are also tasked with erasing any traces of Pyongyang’s past assistance to Assad’s programs to build weapons of mass destruction.”)
As has been noted previously in Quartz, North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear explosions are in some ways sales pitches to countries like Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. Meanwhile China, North Korea’s main trading partner and economic lifeline, seems to be getting more serious about imposing sanctions on its unruly neighbor, for example by recently turning back a fleet of coal-laden cargo ships.
That could mean income from selling military gear becoming all the more important to Pyongyang. With Syria still struggling against insurgents, the symbiotic relationship between the two regimes could be set to continue for some time.