North Korea appears to have stepped up its covert assistance to a Syrian government agency responsible for producing that country’s chemical weapons and advanced missiles, a U.N. panel has concluded in a confidential report.
The revelations underscore widely held concerns about North Korea’s willingness to market its most advanced weapons technology to foreign clients — including, in this instance, to a Syrian regime notorious for using chemical weapons to kill its citizens. Multiple U.N. investigations have linked President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to mass-casualty attacks on Syrian civilians using sarin, a banned chemical toxin.
“North Korea has a sordid history of supplying rogue states like Syria with weapons of mass destruction technology for cash,” Andrew C. Weber, formerly the top Pentagon official responsible for combating the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, said of the new findings. “Given its large and growing arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile delivery systems, this is extremely dangerous.”
North Korea’s alleged aid to Syria is detailed in a 70-page report compiled by the U.N. Panel of Experts, a technical body that releases periodical assessments about compliance with U.N. resolutions, including trade sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.
The report, which has not been publicly released yet, describes ongoing efforts by North Korea to circumvent trade restrictions and sell banned military hardware and know-how to dozens of foreign clients, from the Middle East and North Africa to Latin America. Details about North Korea’s alleged shipments to Syria were first reported by the New York Times and Britain’s Express newspaper.
The disclosures come amid revelations that Joseph Yun, the State Department’s point man on North Korea, will leave his post Friday, a departure said to reflect widespread frustration among U.S. diplomats about the Trump administration’s handling of Korea policy.
President Trump has sought to pressure North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, using personal insults and threats of “fire and fury” if the regime continues its march toward developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. But on Monday, Trump hinted that the United States might be willing to join South Korea in talks with the North, but only, in his words, “under the right conditions.”
The Panel of Experts has previously accused North Korea of aiding Syria’s chemical weapons program, asserting in an August report that Pyongyang had secretly delivered gas masks and other protective gear to the Assad government. But the latest report suggests that the assistance was much broader and included, for example, materials useful for rebuilding Syria’s damaged chemical weapons facilities.
“We’ve known about this activity for a long time, but the report shows that it’s bigger than we knew,” said a Western diplomat briefed on the panel’s findings who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not been released.
Much of the covert aid appears to have been directed toward Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, a government-run agency that employs thousands of scientists and technicians across several campuses in northern and central Syria. U.N. investigators have identified the center as a primary research facility for the country’s chemical weapons and advanced missiles programs. Syria renounced chemical weapons and agreed to the supervised destruction of its declared chemical weapons arsenal in 2013, but the Syrian military has continued to use small amounts of sarin and other toxins in the country’s civil war, apparently from hidden or reconstituted stocks.
Interdicted cargo seen by U.N. investigators in late 2016 and early 2017 included six shipping containers of acid-resistant tiles said to be capable of withstanding high temperatures and corrosive chemicals. Although not specifically banned under international sanctions, the North Korea-supplied tiles “can be used . . . for the interior walls of [a] chemical factory,” the report stated, citing the assessment of an unidentified U.N. member state that provided access to the seized cargo.
A bill of lading listed the shipper as a Chinese company, and the intended recipient as a Syrian firm regarded by Western intelligence agencies as a front company for the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. China, responding to queries from U.N. investigators, said it was unaware of links between the cargo and blacklisted North Korean companies and individuals.
The report also describes shipments of corrosion-resistant valves and thermometers “known for use in chemical weapons programs,” as well as visits to Syria by three delegations of North Korean technicians in 2016, including two groups of missiles experts.
Syria, in a statement to the U.N. panel, said there are “no DPRK technical companies in Syria,” using a common initialism for North Korea. Officials added that the only North Korean citizens in the country were coaches and athletes “confined in the area of sports.”
Meanwhile, the departure of the State Department’s chief envoy on the Korean crisis delivered a fresh blow to U.S. diplomatic efforts to end the stalemate over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. The retiring Yun, 63, is the special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan. He has more than three decades of diplomatic experience.
Yun’s departure will leave another hole in U.S. staffing on Korean issues. Washington has still not nominated an ambassador to South Korea, 13 months into the Trump administration. Victor Cha, an Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, had been in the running for the job, but the administration abruptly scrapped his candidacy last month.
“This is my own personal decision,” Yun told The Washington Post. “Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson has told me he appreciates my service and did not want me to go, but he accepts it reluctantly.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed that Tillerson had accepted Yun’s decision and wished him well.
Fifield reported from Seoul.