State Dep't Expresses 'Grave Concern' About Reported North Korea-Syria Weapons Trade

By Patrick Goodenough | August 25, 2017 | 4:26 AM EDT

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Supreme Assembly of North Korea and sometimes regarded as the regime’s second-most senior leader, in Damascus in July 2002. (Photo: SANA)

(CNSNews.com) – Allegations of illicit weapons collaboration between North Korea and the Assad regime, if true, “would be a very grave, grave concern” to the United States, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday.

She was responding to claims that unnamed countries have intercepted on two occasions in the past six months shipments from North Korea to a Syrian government agency long responsible for chemical weapons production.

Reuters reported this week that a record of the intercepts is contained in a new report by independent experts, submitted this month to the U.N. Security Council.

Nauert noted that the claims were based on a leaked confidential report, which she said will be made public at some point.

“But as a general matter I can say overall that we would applaud the work of this particular [U.N. sanctions] committee and its work to try to hold North Korea responsible or accountable,” she told reporters at the State Department.

Nauert said the U.S. continues to encourage countries to provide the committee with information on North Korea’s attempts to circumvent sanctions.

If what has been reported was true, she added, “that would be a very grave, gave concern to us.”

The report seen by Reuters did not detail where or when the shipments were intercepted or what they contained.

But both the sender (the Korean Mining Development Trading Corporation or KOMID) and recipients (known front companies for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre or SSRC) have been designated by the U.S. government in the past for arms-related activity.

The U.S. Treasury describes the SSRC as “the Syrian government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.”

And it describes KOMID as “North Korea’s premier arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.”

SSRC is also the target of European Union sanctions, while KOMID has also been designated by the U.N. Security Council since 2009.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since a 2006 Security Council resolution adopted in response to ballistic missile and nuclear tests. The committee referred to by Nauert oversees implementation of that resolution.

Asked about the alleged interdictions, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York Wednesday the report was based on a leaked document.

“But, as a matter of principle, it’s important that member-states implement and abide by sanctions voted on by the Security Council,” he added.

The shipment of any chemical arms-related items from North Korea to Syria would constitute violations by both parties. Under a deal brokered by Russia in 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) after surrendering all of his declared chemical stockpiles, following a deadly sarin gas attack near Damascus four years ago this week.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) oversaw the destruction of the materials, although its subsequent investigations determined that the regime had since then used chlorine as a weapon on at least three occasions.

Another chemical attack, in Idlib province last April, was declared by the OPCW to have involved a “sarin-like” substance. President Trump blamed Assad and ordered a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase. The regime continues to deny responsibility.

Collaboration

The North Korean and Syrian regimes have been accused in the past of cooperating in the field of chemical warfare.

As long ago as 1997, then-Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy accused both North Korea and China of transferring “terrible chemical weapons” to the Assad regime.

In 2009, Greek authorities intercepted a Liberian-flagged ship bound for the Syrian port of Latakia and, according to published reports, seized almost 14,000 antichemical weapon protection suits, as well as glass ampules contained reagents.

At the time, North Korea and Syria were two of just six countries yet to have ratified the CWC. Now, Syria has done so.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private non-proliferation organization, North Korea is thought to have the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons, after the U.S. and Russia.

It cites the South Korean defense ministry as estimating in 2012 that Pyongyang possesses between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons.

By comparison, the declared Syrian chemical stockpile, certified by the OPCW to have been destroyed after 2013, weighed in at 1,328 metric tons.

North Korea and Syria are also known to have collaborated in the ballistic missile field (as have North Korea and Iran). And Syria’s suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapons program, again with North Korean assistance, were exposed after Israeli warplanes in 2007 bombed a remote site in eastern Syria.

Damascus denied claims that it was working on a clandestine weapons program with Pyongyang’s help, although International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors found processed uranium particles at the bombed site.


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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow