North Koreans in Syria



A few days ago Russian News Agency TASS reported that Assad al-Zoubi, head of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee delegation, claimed that North Korean forces have been fighting in Syria and that the “North Korean troops are fatally dangerous.” In 2013 reports surfaced that there were 15 North Korean military pilots supporting Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. It’s not clear if these pilots were in Syria in merely a training capacity or were engaging in direct combat, although at least the Chosun Ilbo claimed that North Korean pilots were spotted in the cockpit. Whatever the case, al-Zoubi’s comments mark the first time that a high profile figure has implicated the North Koreans in direct combat in the Syrian civil war.

Damascus and Pyongyang have a long history of military cooperation going back to the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea’s weapons exports to Syria run the full gamut: tanks, MANPADS, Scud-C launchers, cluster warheads, and most notably (and appalling) providing assistance to Syria’s chemical weapons and nuclear programs. In 2007 the Israelis bombed a Yongbyon prototype nuclear reactor in Syria constructed with North Korean support, the evidence for which the Syrians quickly tried to sweep under the rug. And in the midst of the Syrian civil war, and in a particularly “not satire” moment, Damascus and Pyongyang even signed an economic cooperation agreement. Of deepest concern in these developments is the ability of North Korea to export WMD technology, particularly as North Korea continues to advance its own nuclear capacity.

But is this also an export of labor issue? For years North Korea has exported praetorian guard and mercenary services, notably in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and reputedly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In an excellent NK News piece from a year ago Chad O’Carroll and John G. Grisafi ask a pertinent question: could a North Korea, now more pressed for cash than ever, start to rely more heavily on mercenary labor? Pyongyang has long exported (non-military) labor but with an increasing international focus on its human rights abuses this should limit its opportunities going forward. For instance, Mongolia—which has a history of utilizing North Korean labor—I suspect may end the practice soon based on a shifting anti-North Korea tide in Ulaanbaatar. (Mongolian President Elbegdorj gave a speech in 2013 at Kim Il Sung University boldly using words like “democracy” and “freedom”; and Mongolian energy company HBOil just this week pulled out of a Mongolia-DPRK oil deal). If North Korea finds itself with decreasing labor export opportunities they may opt to expand their mercenary trade, which should fetch a higher premium from desperate regimes than, say, lumberjacks ever could. And whoever would accept North Korean soldiers to fight on their behalf would have no qualms about violating sanctions, abusing human rights, or probably even obeying the laws of armed conflict.

Let’s not forget that the US is in Syria too. Last December President Obama acknowledged that there were approximately 50 elite commandos in Syria and just yesterday NPR reported that the US military had taken over a remote airstrip in northeastern Syria, hinting at an expanding US role to fight ISIS in Syria. It is unlikely that the US and North Korean would skirmish in Syria as the US is not fighting al-Assad. After Russia began military operations in Syria there were concerns that the US and Russia would find themselves in a military clash but these fears have so far been unfounded. Belying the general horribleness of the war, North Korea has picked a side to defend (al-Assad), the US has picked a side to “degrade and ultimately destroy” (ISIS), and if either side, or both, achieves their objective the war still doesn’t end. Finally, whatever the North Koreans are up to in Syria the people in the five-sided building across the river are probably watching very closely.

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