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Inside Syria's deadly North Korean chemical weapons connection

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In late February, warplanes struck the Syrian town of al-Shifuniyah, dropping a payload of what local witnesses claimed was chlorine gas. The attack reportedly left 14 dead, including one infant.

It was not the first time chemical weapons have been used in the seven years since the start of Syria's civil war. The Syrian regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has been accused of engaging in similar attacks on civilians targets before. The difference this time was that a United Nations council of experts released a report just days later accusing North Korea of supporting and supplying Assad's arsenal.

"I would say it's very unsurprising because there's a formal agreement between the two countries, between the institutes that are seen as the cover for the chemical warfare program," Bruce Klingner, the CIA's former deputy division chief for Korea, told me in an interview.

The UN alleged that North Korea has supplied the Assad regime with acid-resistant tiles, valves, and thermometers, all of which can be used to produce chemical weapons. Additionally, North Korean technicians were reported to have been on-site at known Syrian weapons facilities. Ballistic missile components are also said to be included. These materials were sent to Syria in at least 40 unreported shipments between 2012 and 2017, according to the UN report.

North Korea and Syria have a longstanding military relationship. North Korean pilots are reported to have flown with the Syrian Air Force during Syria's wars with Israel in the 1960s and 70s. It is North Korea that is suspected of helping jump-start a secret nuclear reactor in Syria, which Israel destroyed in 2007 after suspecting it of being used to produce weapons. The Kim regime is also known to have significantly aided in developing Syria's ballistic missile stockpile. Assad commemorated the long relationship in 2015 by dedicating a park to former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-il.

North Korea is infamous for its notorious nuclear weapons program, however, it also maintains a massive arsenal of remarkably dangerous chemical and biological agents. Some estimates claim the Kim regime may have access to as many as 5,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, mostly comprised of deadly sarin and VX nerve agents. Many experts, including Klingner, believe North Korea would likely use these weapons in the early stages of a war with South Korea and the U.S., in an attempt to prevent troop movements.

The Kim regime appears to have been more than happy to supply its Syrian allies prior to the civil war. Their collaboration on chemical weapons are believed to date back to the 1990s at least. In 2009, Greece reportedly intercepted a North Korean ship carrying 14,000 chemical suits believed to be bound for Syria.

The Assad regime does not appear to have any issue with using what it has learned against its own people. The government has been accused of using chemical weapons several times since the civil war broke out in 2011. The allegations eventually became impossible to ignore by 2013, when the Obama administration finally took action. Obama had threatened Syria with military retaliation should it deploy chemical weapons. He claimed such an action would cross a "red line." Assad called the bluff, Obama failed to respond. He was attempting to broker a nuclear agreement with Iran at the time, a key Syrian ally, and he did not want to risk the negotiations. Instead, a deal was brokered in which Syria was supposed to give up its chemical stockpile. Obama hailed it as a diplomatic victory once the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Assad had given up his arsenal in 2014.

But Assad had found a loophole, which he was happy to exploit. Chlorine was not included in the OPCW ban, given its domestic applications. It was not long until Syrian helicopters were dropping chlorine-filled barrel bombs onto helpless civilians. By 2017, sarin was being utilized once again. Apparently, U.S. officials had been aware that Assad had not given up his entire stockpile.

By the time President Trump was sworn into office, it was clear Obama's measure had been a spectacular failure. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians had been killed by January 2017, hundreds of which were due to chemical agents. When Syrian fighters were suspected of killing at least 90 people, including 30 children, with chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, Trump responded with air strikes, diverging from his predecessor. His administration has condemned the most recent chemical attacks, however, it is unclear what retaliatory measures will be taken against either Syria or North Korea.

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