After fresh accusations surfaced this weekend of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against its own people, the UN reports that North Korea may be providing the means to make these chemical weapons.
A leaked UN report, compiled by a UN panel of experts, claims to have recorded 40 previously undisclosed shipments between North Korea and Syria. The report is thorough, providing more than 200 pages of information, delivering near unimpeachable evidence including bills and copies of contracts between Syrian and North Korean companies.
The leaked report points out the dangers of allowing such trade between North Korea and Syria to continue. Not only does it allow the Syrian government to continue its production of deadly chemical weapons, to be used on its own people, it also provides Pyongyang with the money to expand its nuclear weapons program.
The council, made up of eight experts in various fields including weapons of mass destruction and customs controls, has been operating since 2010 on a mandate from the UN Security Council to monitor North Korea’s sanction violations. The council, and other entities, have suspected since 2011 that Pyongyang could be providing the supplies needed to bolster Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Included in these shipments were corrosion resistant valves, thermometers, pipes, and acid-resistant tiles, suspected to have been used in the production of chemical weapons. The shipments between the North Korea and Syria were made between 2012 and 2017. Although none of the shipments are known to have involved illicit substances, the UN report claims the shipments included “materials that can be used to build bricks for the interior walls of [a] chemical factory.”
North Korea is already under intense scrutiny and sanctions from the UN due to its nuclear program, while the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, has been accused by the UN and other sources of using chemical warfare against the Syrian people in a civil war that is nearing its eight year of combat.
The report was made available to the BBC and other news sources. According to the previously undisclosed report, North Korea has utilized “innovative evasion techniques” to ship supplies to Syria. Damascus allegedly paid for these supplies via a government agency, The Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), and several front companies.
Chemical Weapons & North Korean Technicians
According to intelligence sources, chemical weapons are being manufactured at three SSRC research facilities, two of which are just outside of the Damascus, the Syrian capital. The intelligence source told the BBC, the Syrian government’s allies, Iran and Russia, are well aware of the manufacturing of chemical weapons at these facilities. These accusations surfaced last year after the Syrian government was accused of dropping the nerve gas sarin on a town held by rebels, resulting in the excruciatingly painful death of 90 people.
The recent UN report also indicated missile specialists from North Korea have been spotted at Syrian arms manufacturing centers. One of the SSRC facilities where chemical weapons are said to be manufactured is in Barzeh, one of the manufacturing centers outside of Damascus. North Korean missile experts have been seen at the facility in Barzeh, but the Syrian government maintains its claims that SSRC is a civilian run research institution. The government also insists the only North Koreans in Syria are athletes and coaches.
One UN diplomat told CNN, on one of these visits the North Korean missile technicians were housed in Syrian military facilities.
The Failed Ceasefire
This weekend the UN voted to impose a ceasefire in Syria. By Sunday, the Syrian government had violated the temporary truce by launching a fresh campaign in Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital. After Sunday’s attacks, ambulance drivers, health authorities, and civilians reported the use of chlorine gas in the bombardment, resulting in the death of at least one child.
Civilians have reported becoming trapped in bunkers and beneath rubble. A daily five hour ceasefire is meant to grant humanitarian workers the ability to enter these areas and help wounded and stranded civilians. On Tuesday, for the second day in a row, the humanitarian ceasefire was ignored.
Five of the illegal shipments between Pyongyang and Damascus are said to have been made via a Chinese shipping company, Cheng Tong Trading Co. Chinese companies have already been fingered in the past few months for participating in illicit shipments between North Korea and Russia. In both instances, Beijing has denied that any Chinese companies were involved in illegal shipments.
A UN diplomat told CNN earlier this year, North Korea made roughly $200 million in 2017 from exporting banned commodities, specifically coal, in flagrant violation of UN sanctions. One of the recipients of the illegal shipments is said to be China, an accusation Beijing, again, denies.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke about the situation in Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, saying Moscow is assisting in opening a “humanitarian corridor” meant to deliver aid and help civilians evacuate the war torn area. On Wednesday, Lavrov addressed the UN Human Right Council in Geneva, Switzerland, again speaking about the humanitarian corridor.
Humanitarian aid has largely been unable to reach the people trapped in Eastern Ghouta where the fighting has been some of the fiercest in the civil war, leaving hundreds dead in the past 11 days. Lavrov claims the rebel militants, not the Syrian government, are to blame. He told the UN Human Rights Council, “Now it is the turn to act for militants entrenched there, who still continue shelling Damascus, blocking aid deliveries and the evacuation of those wishing to leave, as well as for their sponsors.”
An official for the US State Department declined to comment, but pointed out to CNN that since 2006 “the Security Council has required the DPRK to cease export of arms and related material as well as items relevant to nuclear, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction-related programs and to fully abandon all weapons of mass destruction programs.”
The UN issues a report twice a year based on its investigation into North Korea, however these reports are not usually made public. It is yet unclear why UN officials chose to leak this report to the public. One UN official told CNN an update on the North Korea investigation will be released to the public on March 16.