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Report Accuses North Korea Of Fueling Syria's Chemical Weapons Program


North Korea has been fueling Syria's chemical weapons program, according to a report leaked from the United Nations this week. This news comes amid renewed accusations that the Syrian regime has been using chemical weapons again against its own civilians, most recently chlorine gas in Eastern Ghouta. The leaked report highlights how this relationship helps Syria maintain chemical weapons and helps North Korea gain cash for its military proliferation. Syria and North Korea are two countries seemingly cut off from the world but not each other.

We turn now to Bruce Bechtol, a former Korea analyst at the United States Defense Intelligence Agency. He'll soon be coming out with a book on the subject and joins us now. Mr. Bechtol, thanks so much for being with us.

BRUCE BECHTOL: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

SIMON: I understand you've seen this report. What should we know?

BECHTOL: This report doesn't just look at the Syria-North Korea connection. It also talks about several countries in Africa, primarily sub-Saharan Africa, that North Korea is proliferating weapons systems and training and military capabilities to. But the primary focus of this has been the Syria connection because Syria has been a huge boon for the military industrial complex in North Korea since the civil war in Syria began.

SIMON: And do I understand this correctly? There's a statue of Kim Il Sung in Damascus?

BECHTOL: Yes, there is, dedicated by Assad.

SIMON: In recognition of his humanitarian enterprises? I guess I'm being a little ironic but...

BECHTOL: (Laughter) It's interesting that you say that because the relationship between Syria and North Korea goes all the way back to 1967. That's when North Korea and Syria actually established diplomatic relations. And it was in 1967 that North Koreans actually started supplying arms and trainers and capabilities, etc., to the Syrians. Between that time frame and the end of the Cold War, that was something the Syrians got for free because the North Koreans were subsidized by the USSR. Following the end of the Cold War beginning in the 1990s, this became much more of a business enterprise.

SIMON: Among many things I don't understand is how they're able to conduct this trade under the eyes of a world that, for the most part, has imposed sanctions on North Korea, for that matter, in both regimes.

BECHTOL: So there's two aspects of that. One is the actual shipment of the weapons. And the other is the finances, right? North Korea always has - this is nothing new - always has operated ships that were owned by other nations and simply operated under different flags. So, for example, last year, it was discovered that there were 50 ships operating under Tanzanian flags that were actually manned by North Korean crews and carrying North Korean illicit cargo.

And typically, what they'll do is they'll have their cargo listed as something like seaweed or, you know, corn or concrete. And then under that cargo will be the actual cargo, which will be military gear.

For the financing, they typically use front companies located outside of North Korea. Last summer, North Korea sent a shipment of type-73 machine guns and chemical precursors to the Syrians. The shipment was paid for by the Iranians. The money went from an Iranian bank to a front company in Malaysia, which then invested it into casinos in Macau. So these are very sophisticated types of ways that the North Koreans not only get around shipments being interdicted but keep us from finding out where the money is going and where it's coming from.

SIMON: In any event, even increasing the effect of sanctions, it sounds like it would come too late to spare the people of Syria chemical warfare.

BECHTOL: I think that the horrible things that we keep hearing about in Syria, which are enabled by North Korean arms and training, are going to be going on for a while.

SIMON: Dr. Bruce Bechtol joined us by Skype - professor of political science at Angelo State University and former Korean analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

BECHTOL: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.