Report: North Korea boosting ground support to Syrian regime

By OLIVIA ALABASTER | The (Beirut, Lebanon) Daily Star | Published: June 8, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- After decades of covert military assistance, North Koreans are believed to be providing increased ground support to the Syrian regime, in addition to that of Hezbollah and Iranian fighters. Officers are allegedly providing logistical support to the Syrian army outside of the northern battle-worn city of Aleppo, according to the opposition-aligned for Human Rights, which announced the news last week.

The Observatory said in a statement it had “received confirmed reports that officers from North Korea are present with regular forces, and are aiding them with logistics and operational plans in Aleppo.”

The Observatory – which is based in Britain but relies on an extensive network of activists on the ground in – could not provide further details, and said it did not know how long the North Korean officers had been in the country, but that it was convinced of the accuracy of the reports.

Bruce Bechtol, the current president of the on Korean Studies, told The Daily Star he was not surprised by the reports at all.

Bechtol, an associate professor of political science at the in Texas and a former Marine, said there had likely been a permanent presence of North Koreans in Syria since the early 1990s. It was then that Damascus contracted the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to build missile assembly lines in, as well as chemical weapons factories later on.

He said it “just makes sense” that the numbers would have gone up since the start of the civil war and estimated that the number of North Koreans currently in Syria, working in technical support, is probably in the hundreds.

Ranked alongside Iran and Iraq in former President George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech, the DPRK has long been assisting, and arming, the Syrian regime.

Some 10 North Koreans were killed during 2007’s Operation Orchard, according to Japanese and U.S. media at the time, which saw Israeli forces destroy a nuclear site – which experts said bore a striking resemblance to North Korea’s Yongbyon atomic plant – in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor. The North Koreans were believed to be technicians helping in the joint Pyongyang-Tehran initiative to help Damascus gain nuclear capabilities.

In a report on Operation Orchard, Der Spiegel newspaper wrote about two ships coming from North Korea to Syria’s Tartous port in 2006 and 2007, one of which was intercepted by Cyprus, transporting construction material believed to be linked to the Deir al-Zor site.

In terms of conventional weapons, the two countries have had a close relationship since a relative easing of ties between the Soviet Union and Syria in the late 1980s.

In 2009, Bechtol wrote, “While the nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria is troubling to say the least – and both nations refuse to acknowledge that it even exists – there is much more to the relationship.”

North Korea began delivering Scud missiles to Syria in 1990, and by 1993 or 1994 had built two missile assembly facilities, which have since been producing 30 to 50 Scuds a year.

Pyongyang has also transferred chemical and biological weapons to Syria, Bechtol said, and helped build “at least two” chemical weapons sites in the country, capable of producing “at a minimum, VX and sarin,” nerve gases.

France said Tuesday it was convinced that the Syrian government had used sarin nerve agent against rebels.

“There is no doubt that it’s the regime and its accomplices” that are responsible for use of the gas, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

A British government spokesperson Wednesday backed this claim: “There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime used – and continues to use – chemical weapons, including sarin.”

There are at least two chemical sites in Syria, Bechtol said, as each has a different method of attaching the agents to weapons. One focuses on attaching chemicals to 152 mm artillery with a range of 17,000 meters, and the other to longer range Scuds, he explained.

“Matching the chemical weapons with a particular platform is a very sophisticated task, and North Koreans are heavily involved in those tasks which require more technical expertise,” he said.

And while he said they had always had a presence at the weapons facilities they helped to build – “in the past Syria wouldn’t even test fire a Scud without North Koreans being there” – they were probably there in larger numbers now.

“The Syrians need a lot more small weapons than they did before, for obvious reasons.”

But why does Syria, and Iran, rely so heavily on North Korean weaponry and training?

Bechtol said the North Koreans “have an awful lot of expertise, they have the people to do it, and the price is right.”

“No doubt there is a shared hatred of the U.S., but ideology is an ancillary role,” in this relationship, he added. “The main role is hard currency. North Korea doesn’t do anything for anybody unless they get paid partially in advance. They don’t do anything just to help someone.”

It seems hard to imagine that technical advisers who have not had direct experience of war in their lifetime could provide much support during such an intense civil conflict as Syria is experiencing.

Richard Bush, director at the Center for Northeast at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that despite not having been involved in a full-on war in six decades, “North Korea has some pretty capable Special Operations forces, who have seen action.” This includes raids across the Demilitarized Zone into South Korea and the 1974 assassination of the current South Korean president’s mother.

Not only that, Bechtol added, but North Koreans have been involved in various proxy wars over recent decades, in Angola, Cuba and Ethiopia, among others. “So while they haven’t fought a full-on war since 1953, they have had experience.”

Removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008 by Bush, North Korea should be readded, and promptly, Bechtol said.

Pyongyang has been benefitting from a civil war which has already led to at least 80,000 deaths, in turn using the money earned to bulk up its own military, Bechtol said.

“North Koreans have been doing so much in the Middle East for so long. It’s nothing new in Syria, it’s just stepped up. Their role has increased.

“And it’s a good thing for North Koreans, because they’re making more money than they have in a while, because the Syrian army is constantly using these weapons and then buying more,” he added.

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