foreign affairs

North Korea Supplying Syria’s Chemical-Weapons Program Is Horrific, Yet Unsurprising

Syrian civilians flee from reported Assad-regime air strikes on the rebel-held town of Jisreen on February 8, 2018. Photo: ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

A report by U.N. experts finds that North Korea supplied the Syrian government with materials that could have been used to produce chemical weapons on several occasions in the last two years, lending weight to long-standing suspicions that Syria is continuing to use these weapons on its own people.

The 200-page report, which remains unpublished but was reviewed by the New York Times, documents at least 40 previously unreported shipments from North Korea to Syria from 2012 to 2017, which included prohibited ballistic-missile parts and materials with both civilian and military uses. The supplies the U.N. suspects are being used to make chemical weapons include acid-resistant tiles, valves, and thermometers. North Korean missile experts have also been seen working at Syrian chemical-weapons and missile facilities.

The report’s findings paint a damning picture of the international community’s ability to police the global black market in illegal weapons: Both North Korea and Syria are under extremely heavy sanctions from the U.N., U.S., EU, and other countries and supranational organizations, yet they have been able to do regular business with each other, helping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad carry out atrocities while also financing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs.

While the U.N. panel did not find conclusive evidence of ongoing collaboration between the regimes to manufacture chemical weapons currently, experts told the Times that it laid out in unprecedented detail the sophisticated measures these countries have taken to get around these sanctions. The report describes some of North Korea’s methods of sanctions evasion, which include a complex web of shell companies, a network of sympathetic individuals in unnamed foreign countries who provide access to financing, the use of its own diplomats to carry out smuggling, and cyber operations.

The relationship between the Assad and Kim regimes dates back to before the current generation of dictators rose to power, with North Korea aiding Syria in the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and ’70s, helping the country develop its own ballistic missiles, and helping it build a plutonium-production facility, which Israel destroyed in 2007. North Korea has also supported Syria’s chemical-weapons program since at least the 1990s.

After being accused of carrying out a sarin-gas attack on a rebel enclave that killed as many as 1,400 people in 2013, Assad agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy his stockpile under a deal brokered by Russia amid threats of military action from the U.S.

Critics of former president Barack Obama’s reticence to intervene in Syria often point to this moment as a crucial misstep. Regardless, nobody thought Assad actually gave up all of his chemical weapons, and his army is believed to have carried out multiple chlorine-gas attacks this year as well as another sarin attack last April. Russia, however, has protected Assad from accountability for these actions, using its veto on the U.N. Security Council in November to scuttle a separate panel investigating the use of chemical weapons by actors on both sides of the Syrian civil war.

For its part, North Korea appears to have gotten sanctions evasion and illegal weapons exports down to a science. Another U.N. report shown to the press in early February said the regime had made $200 million from banned commodity exports in 2017, which included weapons shipments to Syria and Myanmar. That report also found evidence of “the transfer of items with utility in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs.”

In addition to the methods identified by the U.N. panel, North Korea sends its illegal exports on ships flagged by different countries, which acquire new names, new (fraudulent) registrations, and new shell-company owners, Bloomberg Politics reports. For example, the ship Jin Teng, which was sanctioned by the U.S. in March 2016, was later rechristened as the Shen Da 8 and then the Hang Yu 1 to evade detection and continued to ship goods out of North Korea through Chinese ports, according to Kharon, a company that helps banks and companies identify sanctions risks.

The U.N. has accused companies in China and Singapore of helping North Korea conduct international trade in violation of sanctions. Identifying companies with links to Pyongyang and cracking down on them is perhaps the hardest part of the sanctions whack-a-mole game. Criticism of China for not doing enough to interdict North Korean shipping may be justified, but even more robust Chinese enforcement might not catch every illegal transaction.

That North Korea continues to do brisk business with other rogue states despite being subject to perhaps the tightest sanctions regime ever imposed on any country illustrates the limitations, and even downsides, of punishing rogue states by cutting them out of the legitimate global marketplace. Commerce always finds a way, especially when key players like Russia and China are unwilling or unable to enforce embargoes diligently.

Lack of access to licit export markets may even encourage such countries to traffic in highly profitable black-market commodities like illegal weapons and drugs. In addition to helping arm its fellow human-rights violators in Syria and Myanmar, North Korea has a well-documented history of exporting heroin and methamphetamine; state entities there reportedly ramped up production of these drugs in response to the tightening of sanctions last year.

Sanctions failing to prevent the de facto crime family that runs North Korea from making money is particularly unsurprising if one considers the effects sanctions have had on other misbehaving regimes in the recent past.

Thirteen years of sanctions on Iraq in the years leading up to the 2003 invasion failed to curb Saddam Hussein’s power or his penchant for violating human rights, sanctions on Iran enabled the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to consolidate its control over the economy, and sanctions on Russia have barely scratched President Vladimir Putin and his fellow oligarchs — in his words, they’ve actually made him even stronger.

None of this is to say that criminal regimes like Kim’s should be allowed unfettered access to the global economy. The U.N.’s findings, however, should inspire a serious conversation among world leaders about the ease with which sanctions are being evaded in the modern world and the need for more effective enforcement mechanisms, especially when it comes to finance and cyberespionage. It also may be time to start thinking about what else the international community can do to rein in the criminal behavior of states, if sanctions are ineffectual and war undesirable.

North Korea Link to Syria’s Chemical Weapons Is Unsurprising