(CNSNews.com) – Senior Syrian and North Korean officials held talks in Damascus this week on further strengthening a relationship which has long been viewed with unease by the United States and Israel.
U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked North Korean assistance to Syrian ballistic missile programs for decades, and in more recent years Pyongyang is suspected of helping Syria develop a clandestine nuclear capability on a site bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007.
Israel also accuses the Stalinist state of sending weapons to the region for intended use by Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza. Syria and Iran are the main sponsors of the two terrorist organizations.
In the process of restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus, the Obama administration has been urging President Bashir Assad to play a more constructive role in the region. Assad defied a direct U.S. appeal earlier this year to distance himself from regional troublemakers by hosting a three-way meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Now Syria is again demonstrating that it does not feel bound by calls to isolate belligerent regimes.
The visit by Pyongyang’s deputy foreign minister, Kim Hyong-jun, comes at a time when the U.S. and its allies are considering a response to claims that North Korea sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors near their maritime border.
At a time when Seoul has asked the U.N. Security Council to come up with a coordinated international response to the attack, few countries – with the notable exception of close ally China – would be keen to host members of Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem held talks with Kim Hyong-jun centering on “consolidating bilateral ties in the interest of the two countries.”
The visiting North Korean also discussed matters including “the latest political developments of interest to both countries” with other Syrian government officials, it said.
The report did not elaborate, but international developments in the nuclear field are likely to have been discussed.
Syria last March expressed interest in developing a civilian nuclear program, with Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mikdad telling a conference in Paris that “the peaceful application of nuclear energy should not be monopolized by the few that own this technology but should be available to all.”
Because of Syria’s close ties with Iran – whose civilian program is suspected to be a cover for attempts to develop a nuclear weapons capability – as well as unanswered questions about the site Israel bombed in 2007, Western countries may be reluctant to help Damascus develop a civilian program. North Korea, which is not a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would not feel such restraints.
After Israel carried out its bombing raid of a remote facility called Dair Alzour, inspectors found unexplained traces of uranium at the site, raising suspicions that cooperation was already underway on the covert building of a reactor designed to produce plutonium, one of the two fissile elements used to fuel nuclear weapons.
Syria and North Korea both denied the claims by the U.S. and Israel, but Syria has also refused for the past two years to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors wanting to investigate some sites in the country including Dair Alzour.
The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, told a meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors in Vienna on Monday that because of Syria’s non-cooperation, the agency was unable to make progress towards resolving outstanding questions relating to the sites.
For Israel, which has fought three wars with Syria, concerns about deepening ties between North Korea and the Assad government are not limited to the nuclear issue.
During a visit to Japan last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that an arms shipment seized in an aircraft in Thailand last December had originated in North Korea, and were headed to Hezbollah and Hamas. (Thai authorities, tipped off by the U.S., searched the plane when it landed in Bangkok and found 35 tons of weapons, along with documentation indicating that the cargo, described as oil-drilling equipment, was headed for Tehran.)
Lieberman charged that North Korea was also providing crucial assistance to Iranian and Syrian “missile programs,” saying the three were forming a new “axis of evil” threatening world security. He used a term coined by President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union, when he warned about an “axis of evil” comprising regimes like North Korea, Iran and Saddam-ruled Iraq, along with their terrorist allies.
North Korea dismissed Lieberman’s charges, deriding him as an “imbecile.”
According to unclassified CIA reports to Congress, North Korea and Iran have helped Syria to accumulate one of the biggest ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East.
Similarly, the CIA has reported on decades of North Korean ballistic missile cooperation with Iran.