Back in September, when KCNA reported “Greetings to Kim Jong Un from Syrian President,” it didn’t mention anything about a request to “please send helicopter pilots” as being part of Syria’s efforts “to strengthen the friendly and cooperative relations between Syria and the DPRK in the interests of the two peoples.” But at least that is an inference one might draw from the reporting of Jonathan Spyer in the Jerusalem Post.
Spyer notes the presence of 15 North Korean helicopter pilots, originally reported by the “pro-rebel but usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,” and interprets this as an indicator of political unreliability in the Syrian military. The Chosun Ilbo goes even further, putting them in the cockpits in recent attacks on rebels in Aleppo, where government forces have been advancing. To my knowledge there is no corroboration of this story beyond this single source. Any reader who knows more please chime in.
If true, it would not be the first time that North Korea had come to the aid of a desperate ally. Or at least a desperate country with cash. When I was in Missawa, the main port of Eritrea, I was shown three Ethiopian tanks destroyed in the Eritrean war of independence and was told that they had been crewed by North Koreans. I was not entirely convinced, but Michela Wrong confirmed the tale. Indeed, her excellent book, “I Didn’t Do It For You,” contains the whole story: frustrated by the growing unreliability of Ethiopian tank crews who would simply surrender at the first opportunity, the chief KGB advisor to the Ethiopian war effort recruited the North Koreans. I can imagine that the Russians (or maybe now it’s the Iranians) being similarly frustrated watching Syrian helicopters fly in the wrong direction and turning to the reliable supplier of military specialists for desperate regimes. Ironically, years later it appears that the Eritreans turned to the North Koreans to supply sanctions-busting arms bound for Al-Shabab in Somalia; with a wink and a sanctions-busting nod from the US, the North Koreans were also supplying the Ethiopian side in that particular conflict.
As Spyer goes on to observe, “Earlier this year, the Saudi-based regional newspaper Asharq al-Awsat carried eyewitness reports revealing the presence of North Korean [artillery] officers among the Syrian regime’s ground forces in the city of Aleppo” though he says that they were not directing barrages, merely providing logistical support.