North Korea helping Syria make chemical weapons
United Nations: North Korea has been shipping supplies to the Syrian government that could be used in the production of chemical weapons, United Nations experts contend.
The evidence of a North Korean connection comes as the United States and other countries have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on civilians, including recent attacks on civilians in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta using what appears to have been chlorine gas.
North Korean missile technicians have also been spotted working at known chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria, according to the report, which was written by a panel of experts who looked at North Korea’s compliance with UN sanctions.
The report highlights the potential danger posed by any such trade between Syria and North Korea, which could allow Syria to maintain its chemical weapons while also providing North Korea with cash for its nuclear and missile programmes.
The possible chemical weapons components were part of at least 40 previously unreported shipments by North Korea to Syria between 2012 and 2017 of prohibited ballistic missile parts and materials that could be used for both military and civilian purposes, according to the report, which has not been publicly released but which was reviewed by The New York Times.
Neither the report’s authors nor members of the UN Security Council who have seen it would comment, and neither would the US mission to the international agency.
It is unclear when, or even whether, the report will be released.
“I don’t know about its publication date, if any,” Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman, told reporters Tuesday in response to queries.
Asked to comment on the report, he said, “I think the overarching message is that all member states have a duty and responsibility to abide by the sanctions that are in place.”
The eight experts who make up the panel all come from different countries and possess specific expertise in areas such as weapons of mass destruction, maritime transport and customs controls. Since 2010, the panel has had a mandate from the Security Council to investigate possible sanctions violations by North Korea and present its findings in an annual report.
Though experts who viewed the report said the evidence it cited did not prove definitively that there was current, continuing collaboration between North Korea and Syria on chemical weapons, they said it did provide the most detailed account to date of efforts to circumvent sanctions intended to curtail the military advancement of both countries.
William Newcomb, who was a member of the UN panel of experts on North Korea from 2011 to 2014, called the report “an important breakthrough.”
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, there have been suspicions that North Korea was providing equipment and expertise to maintain the chemical weapons programme of Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad. Those suspicions were not assuaged when in 2013 Syria signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention and claimed to give up its chemical weapons stocks.
“We knew stuff was going on,” Newcomb said.
“We really wanted to up the game on chemical weapons programmes, and we just weren’t able to get what we needed to do so.”
The report, which is more than 200 pages long, includes copies of contracts between North Korean and Syrian companies as well as bills of lading indicating the types of materials shipped.
Much information was provided by unidentified UN member states.
The military-related cooperation, if confirmed, indicates major shortcomings in the international effort to isolate both countries.
The shipments would have eluded detection even though both nations are subject to highly restrictive sanctions, and are under the intense scrutiny of US and other spy services.
North Korea’s relationship with Syria takes up one section of the report, which also documents the many ways the government of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has tried to circumvent sanctions. It describes how North Korea uses a complex web of shell companies and sympathetic foreign citisens to gain access to international financing, employs sophisticated cyber operations to steal military secrets and enlists its own diplomats in smuggling operations.
It also criticises Russia and China for failing to do enough to enforce sanctions on items such as oil, coal and luxury goods.
The sanctions, it says, have yet to be matched “by the requisite political will, international coordination, prioritisation and resource allocation necessary to drive effective implementation.”
The report gives fresh details of a military relationship between North Korea and Syria that goes back decades.
During the Arab-Israeli wars in the 1960s and 1970s, North Korean pilots flew missions with the Syrian air force.
Later, North Korean technicians helped to develop Syria’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and to build a nuclear power plant capable of producing plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. Israel destroyed the plant in 2007.
In 2015, Syria honoured that assistance by opening a monument and park in Damascus dedicated to North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader. The unveiling ceremony, held as Syria’s civil war raged, featured North Korean and Syrian dignitaries, military officials and a marching band.
North Korea has provided training and support for Syria’s chemical weapons programme since at least the 1990s, according to a forthcoming book by Bruce Bechtol, a former Korea analyst at the US Defense Intelligence Agency who is now a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.
The book also describes an accident in 2007 in which several Syrian technicians, along with North Korean and Iranian advisers, were killed in the explosion of a warhead filled with sarin gas and the extremely toxic nerve agent VX.
The relationship with Syria “has been a boon for the North Korean military-industrial complex,” Bechtol said in an interview.
The UN report says the cooperation continued during Syria’s civil war, despite international sanctions.
Crucial evidence of that was found in January 2017, when two ships carrying acid-resistant tiles, commonly used in the construction of chemical weapons factories, were interdicted at sea en route to Damascus, the report said.
Those shipments were among five deliveries agreed to in a contract between a government-owned company in Syria and the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., a North Korean company involved in arms exports, according to the report.(Agencies)