Behind The Lines: Assad’s North Korean connection

Reports that Pyongyang has sent pilots to Syria suggest the Damascus regime can no longer rely on its own airmen; ties precede current Syrian war, forms part of North Korea's broader network of relationship in Mideast.

Kim Jong-uh and syrian guy 370 (photo credit: Reuters/KCNA)
Kim Jong-uh and syrian guy 370
(photo credit: Reuters/KCNA)
Reports have emerged this week indicating the presence of North Korean military personnel in Syria. They note that 15 North Korean helicopter pilots are operating there on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The reports have been validated by the pro-rebel but usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
They are also not the first evidence that Pyongyang is actively involved on the ground in the Assad regime’s war effort.
Earlier this year, the Saudi-based regional newspaper Asharq al-Awsat carried eyewitness reports revealing the presence of North Korean officers among the Syrian regime’s ground forces in the city of Aleppo.
On this occasion, the Syrian Observatory was itself the source of the report.
Asharq Al-Awsat detailed the presence of between 11 and 15 North Korean officers in the city. Rami Abdul Rahman of the organization said the men were artillery officers.
They were not, he said, taking part directly in the fighting. Rather, the men were engaged in providing “logistical support in addition to the development plans of military operations.”
These sightings are the latest confirmation of the long, close and cooperative relationship maintained between Pyongyang and the regime of the Assads.
The connection precedes the current Syrian war. It forms part of North Korea’s broader network of relationships in the Middle East.
Most famously, of course, the plutonium reactor under construction at the al-Kibar facility near Deir ez-Zor, destroyed by Israel in September 2007, was built under North Korean supervision.
North Korean participation in the reactor’s construction was confirmed by a high-level Iranian defector, Ali Reza Asghari. According to Der Spiegel, North Korean scientists were present at the site at the time of the bombing.
But Assad’s fledgling nuclear program was not the only project in which Damascus was aided by Pyongyang. Cooperation also took place both in the field of conventional weapons and in that of nonnuclear weapons of mass destruction.
In an October 3 interview with Radio Free Asia, former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol noted that North Korea has been supplying weaponry, including chemical weapons, to Syria since the early 1990s.
According to Bechtol, North Korea provides the Syrians with the ability to “marry up” chemical weapons with missile systems. He noted that the North Koreans constructed two chemical weapons facilities for the Syrians, which remain in operation today.
In terms of conventional weapons, North Korea has played a vital part in Syria’s missile program.
The North Koreans are acknowledged experts in weapons smuggling process. They have continued to transport spare parts for Assad’s missiles into the country throughout the war, by air and by sea, coolly dismissive of the supposed international arms embargo. According to a 2012 report prepared for the UN Security Council, South Korea intercepted one shipment in May 2012, which was carrying graphite cylinders en route to Syria for Assad’s missiles.
The Iraqi authorities also claim to have diverted a plane carrying North Korean material to Syria, last September.
Bechtol, the former DIA man, noted that “in the past few months, there’s been an uptick in the number of North Korean advisers and logistics personnel on the ground that are helping Syrians resupply themselves,” and in the maintenance of weapons systems earlier supplied by Pyongyang. Such maintenance and resupply, of course, is vital for a country engaged in a long war, in which systems are in daily use.
Why are the North Koreans doing this? The answer does not lie in the realm of ideology.
Rather, the North Koreans are isolated and subject to sanctions. They need money, and will sell to whoever pays them.
So who is paying them? In the case of Syria, the answer is – almost certainly – the Iranians.
As with Russia, Syria does not get free arms handouts from its sponsors outside of the region. It instead gets free cash handouts from its regional patron, Iran, for which the survival of the Assad regime is most vital.
This money is then used to pay for Pyongyang’s and Moscow’s hardware and expertise.
Of course, Iran is North Korea’s main customer in the Middle East.
So Pyongyang’s evident involvement in the Syrian war is also a matter of longstanding alliances, as well as monetary gain.
Most intriguing in the latest development is the involvement of North Korean pilots. It is not clear if these men are actually engaged in combat on behalf of Assad, or in other tasks.
But their presence appears to suggest that the dictator’s problems with manpower also extend to his air force. The lack of trustworthy fighters has been the main problem facing the regime since the outbreak of the war.
Iran has sought to solve it through the insertion of large numbers of Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shi’ite volunteers and Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the fighting lines.
If Pyongyang is now supplying pilots to the regime, then appears it can no longer rely even on its own airmen.
This is quite plausible.
On the one hand, the Assad regime is, among other things, an “air force” regime. Hafez Assad was himself a pilot and a commander of the Syrian Air Force.
But as with other parts of the armed forces, the most loyal men in the air force are to be found in the most politically sensitive positions, not the most dangerous ones.
So while the very powerful Syrian Air Force Intelligence (Idarat al- Mukhabarat al-Quwwa al-Jawiya) is largely officered by Syrian Alawites, the majority of the pilots are Sunnis.
As such, it is perfectly possible that the same problems of trust apply to Assad’s aircrews as those which afflict his ground forces.
The evidence suggesting the presence of North Korean soldiers and aviators in Syria ultimately furthers testimony to the determined, effective and continuing effort by Assad’s allies, from the very start of the war, to keep him in place.
It may also be assumed that the North Koreans have noted and enjoyed the rudderless, wavering US policy toward the same issue over the same period.