On Feb. 27, the New York Times revealed that, according to an undisclosed United Nations report, North Korea has been supplying Syria with components for its chemical weapons and ballistic missiles programs. The report, written by a panel of experts tasked with investigating North Korean sanctions violations, includes information on 40 previously-unreported shipments from North Korea to Syria from 2012 to 2017.
The report likely triggers flashbacks in Washington to the notorious A.Q. Khan network, the nuclear-weapons black market that helped rouge states from North Korea to Iran to Syria attempt to develop nuclear weapons. While the report will not become public until mid-March, available details solidify what we already know about both North Korea and Syria: Both states are bent on maintaining their WMD programs, they flaunt international law to do so and they will use ties to illicit actors to accomplish their goals.
Reports that North Korea is aiding another state in an illicit program do not come as a surprise; the intelligence community has been tracking North Korea’s chemical weapons program since at least the 1960s, and since 1991, has warned that North Korea would likely use its Middle Eastern connections to evade sanctions. The bottom line is North Korea is notorious for adopting both conventional and innovative ways to fund its sanctions-evasion efforts.
We’ve received public warnings about Syria’s chemical weapons programs since 1985, warnings that were confirmed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in 2013 and have continuing through 2017, with additional attacks alleged in 2018.
If initial reports from the panel of experts are confirmed, it’s likely that both North Korea and Syria violated international law. After North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council passed a series of resolutions banning member states (including Syria) from purchasing materials related to North Korea’s ballistic and WMD programs, including chemical weapons. This includes calling on states to inspect cargo being shipped to and from North Korea to prevent the movement of banned goods.
Similarly, the Security Council passed resolutions condemning the Syria after its August 2013 chemical-weapons attacks on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. After the attacks, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits signers from acquiring chemical weapons. It also agreed to work within a framework for destroying its chemical weapons via the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Syria has violated its commitments by conducting further chemical weapons attacks, as my colleagues have discussed here and here.
I previously discussed the difficulty of enforcing UN sanctions, and we should expect this problem to continue. But here’s the good thing about the report: It will shine yet another spotlight on Syria and North Korea, making it that much harder for their benefactors—Russia, Iran and China—to prop them up. For instance, the Washington Post reported that an as-of-yet unnamed Chinese shipping company played the middleman, which will undoubtedly put it on a sanctions list in the United States and perhaps internationally, if it isn’t there already. This will also put yet another card in the back pocket of U.S. diplomats working to stop Assad and Kim’s WMD programs.