The Syria Crisis and North Korea

The unraveling of the Syrian drama has suddenly brought attention to an unexpected culprit: North Korea. But if you give it a second thought, that should not be surprising given the US’ vision of the world as a stand-off between good guys and bad guys. North Koreans are near the top of the latter list and it would be only natural to emphasize the wickedness of the Assad regime by highlighting its cooperation with Pyongyang. It is true that traditional military cooperation between the two has flourished for a long time. Until recently, this cooperation was one of the most advanced of Pyongyang’s military ties with its clients, which included Iran, Libya and also many African states. Syria has been one of North Korea’s closest allies for decades. I remember when serving as a Russian diplomat in Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, I was sometimes mistaken by the service personnel in hotels and shops as being “Syrian” when saying I was “Soryon” (Soviet), testifying to the brisk exchanges between the two countries. However, the present stress on the link between the two “rogue states” seems a bit artificial. Some commentators even call the two countries “a real axis of evil,”[1] prompting suspicion of a “hidden agenda.”

To clarify, I would conclude the above tendency in official comments and media seems to be directed against North Korea, rather than Assad, (who has nothing to lose in Western opinion anyway). The recent emphasis on a Damascus-Pyongyang connection could result in collateral damage, further cornering North Korea and disrupting emerging North-South dialogue. This also might be interpreted as a tacit warning to both China and Russia not to go to extremes in defending “friends” like Syria and North Korea.

I am not qualified to discuss North Korea’s assistance to the Syrian chemical weapons program. There is a lot of information[2]—which I tend to believe—about exchanges between the two countries in this sensitive area, although I presume North Korea’s role in Syria’s chemical weapons program is exaggerated. What catches my attention is that this long-known fact is now extensively used to further demonize and isolate North Korea. The image of Assad’s regime in the Western media probably could not be tarnished any more by being accused of importing weapons and technologies from a country with an extreme anti-western stance.

Thus a country half-a-world away from the Middle East becomes hostage to an overall US policy of increasing its reliance on force and pressure to achieve its targets. This is clearly demonstrated in the reaction in South Korea, where the conservatives have not lost the chance to use the situation to sting their archenemy, probably with the tacit approval from Washington. After meeting his Korean counterpart, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed that North Korea’s chemical weapons:

…threaten our treaty ally the Republic of Korea and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there. I’ve just returned from Brunei, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea’s defense minister [Kim Kwan Jin] about the real threat that North Korea’s stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them.[3]

In response to the recent ROK Defense Ministry spokesman’s statement about “a chemical weapons connection between North Korea and Syria,” Agence France-Presse noted, “Any link between North Korea and the attacks in Syria could further isolate Pyongyang, which is prohibited from international sales of its weapons under UN sanctions for conducting nuclear and missile tests.”[4] This brings the issue into the broader framework needing to “punish” Pyongyang for its bad behavior.

This is hardly conducive to any rapprochement between North and South or fostering recent movement towards decreasing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang’s leaders are hypersensitive to any accusations that they perceive as a part of a “hostile plot” and this could cloud any prospects for dialogue. The latest example is the withdrawal of the invitation to Ambassador Robert King, the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, in reaction to what North Koreans considered “provocative military actions.”[5]

North Koreans make it quite clear they support President Assad and see a military intervention from the outside as an “unpardonable crime.” They will also interpret it as further proof of the absence of desire on the part of the US to seek compromises and a political solution to the ongoing differences between Pyongyang and Washington. A high-ranking North Korean diplomat recently reminded to me, “Our patience is not unlimited.” So the probability of new provocations on the Korean peninsula would increase, rather than decrease, as a result of linking North Korea to the acute crisis in Syria.

Another assertion that puzzles me is that any strike on Syria would become a “warning” to Pyongyang to discourage it from “bad behavior.” Sadly, this argument is promoted at the highest possible level. “North Korea is hoping for ambivalence from the Congress,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited North Korea as a country that could be emboldened if global norms against use of chemical weapons are weakened by US inaction.[6] If the US fails to respond, American officials have said, it could encourage other hostile governments to use or develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) without fear of reprisal. In fact, however, the experience with North Korea has amply shown the opposite is unfortunately true. Every time US pressure on North Korea has increased, Pyongyang has answered with increased militarization and provocations. The history of negotiations on the nuclear issue testifies to the fact that if North Korea perceives the behavior of its partner as threatening, it answers with nuclear tests and rocket launches. Therefore, the results of a strike against Syria would certainly be diametrically opposite of the aforementioned US logic—at least in case of North Korea.

Indeed, given the history of military strikes in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, such an action could easily spur North Koreans to do even more to develop its WMD potential as a sole deterrent to aggression and would undermine any desire for denuclearization—or for even talking about it. In such an environment, the possibility of resuming the Six Party Talks, which both China and Russia see as a key to finding a diplomatic solution, would become more remote.

Moreover, Pyongyang might interpret the current great attention given by the West to Syria’s chemical weapons as a chance to make its own stockpile a new bargaining chip. I would not be surprised to see many publications concerning North Korean chemical weapons in the near future (maybe to the secret pleasure of the North Korean military, making them seem even more dangerous). Then this issue could be brought to the bargaining table much to Pyongyang’s satisfaction, as chemical weapons are not expensive to produce and are easy to hide. Getting rid of them would require handsome “compensation” from the “enemies.”

It is ridiculous to presume that the fear of “punishment” for using chemical weapons (or other WMD for this matter) might restrain the North Koreans, simply because such a scenario would be possible only in the context of an all out war. In such a case, North Korean leaders would have nothing to lose and such a suicidal action would not be containable by another American foe brought to its knees because it did not have enough strength to counter the United States. On the contrary, this argument gives the North Korean propaganda machine much-needed fuel for proving to its population and military the graveness of the situation and the real threat from the United States. I would not be surprised either if we soon see North Korean publications highlighting claims that the US and South Korea have chemical and biological weapons and that their militaries are receiving anti-chemical weapons training (simply to make them realize the wickedness of the enemy).

We have enough trouble trying to entice North Korea into dialogue to secure its more responsible behavior. It is better not to complicate the process by something actually irrelevant either to Syria or the situation in Korea.

[1] Dennis P. Halpin, “Syria and North Korea: A Real Axis of Evil,” The National Interest, September 4, 2013,

[2] See “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012,”

[3] Yang Jung A, “Syrian Actions Bringing Pressure upon NK,” September 6, 2013,

[4] “Syria’s Assad sends congratulations to N. Korea’s Kim,” Agence France-Presse, September 5, 2013.

[5] “North Korea blames US ‘provocation’ for canceling envoy meeting,” Associated Press, September 1, 2013,

[6] Paul Eckert, “Specter of North Korea lurks in U.S. debate on Syria’s chemical weapons,” Reuters, September 5, 2013,

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