WASHINGTON D.C. – North Korean military experts are deployed on the frontlines of the war in Syria, providing key assistance to the Assad government’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs, according to foreign intelligence, sources within the Syrian resistance and independent analysts.
North Korean military assistance to Syria is part of a lengthy covert war that has quietly raged for a decade, leaving a trail of dead North Korean and Syrian military scientists.
The North Korean military advisors now in Syria provide components and technical expertise to Damascus to adapt North Korean-supplied ballistic missiles as delivery systems for their chemical weapons arsenal.
Syria’s ballistic missile and chemical warfare stockpile, assembled for years with crucial assistance from Pyongyang, is the largest in the Middle East. North Korean ballistic missile engineers and military technicians are currently stationed in at least three Syrian missile and chemical weapons bases.
One of these includes the al-Safir missile and chemical weapons base near Aleppo, the country’s largest chemical weapons development facility, foreign military and intelligence agencies as well as Syrian opposition forces said.
Arabic-speaking North Korean officers “are taking part alongside the regular forces in the fighting in Aleppo,” Rami Abd-al-Rahman, director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Al-Sharq al-Awsat on June 3, citing government militia sources.
“The overall number of these officers is unknown but there are certainly between 11 and 15 North Korean officers and the majority of them speak Arabic…(they) are deployed at several fronts such as the defense factories southeast of Aleppo and at the regular forces’ bases inside the city itself.”
The North Korean missile specialists are contracted by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the clandestine agency employing an estimated 10,000 scientists and specialists in charge of Syria’s covert chemical weapons and ballistic missile effort that reports directly to President Bashar Assad.
The North Korean supplied ballistic missiles serve as the most sophisticated delivery system for the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. North Korean experts have been providing increasing assistance to adapt chemical warheads to these missiles through several secret military agreements signed in recent years.
The SSRC is a military research facility in charge of developing the Syrian unconventional warfare program and has long been the chief liaison with Pyongyang to clandestinely procure nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missile technology and components.
The North Koreans, under the direct command of a ruling Korean Workers’ Party agency that reports directly to Kim Jong Un, work under the cover of employees of the Tangun General Corporation and other paper front corporations created to obscure their connection to Pyongyang.
The United Nations and numerous governments list both Tangun and the SSRC as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and trade with both is banned under international sanctions.
But North Korean collaboration with Damascus in weapons of mass destruction is nothing new, as evidence going as far back to the 1980s shows.
TARGETED SINCE 2007
It was at the al-Safir facility in July 2007 that an explosion killed North Korean missile engineers attempting to weaponize North Korean supplied Scud-C missiles with mustard gas. The blast, which released VX and Sarin nerve agents and mustard gas into the atmosphere, killed at least 15 Syrian military and chemical warfare specialists, “dozens” of Iranians, and at least three North Korean ballistic missile specialists.
Syrian defense sources said that “during a 26 July (2007) test to weaponize a 500 km ‘Scud C’ with a mustard gas warhead, an explosion occurred in a laboratory adjacent to a chemical agent storage facility located in a Syrian military camp in Aleppo,” respected military and intelligence journal Jane’s Defense Weekly reported in September 2007.
U.S. intelligence on DPRK – Syria nuclear cooperation | CIA video 2008
In September of that year, Israeli F-16 fighter jets destroyed a North Korean-designed and constructed plutonium nuclear weapons facility in the remote northern Syrian Desert. The assault killed an estimated 10 North Korean nuclear scientists working at the facility.
The following month, when the bodies of the North Korean scientists were returned to Pyongyang, Syria and North Korea signed a new agreement to upgrade North Korean-supplied ballistic missiles to carry chemical warheads.
AL-SAFIR : A LONG AND CRITICAL HISTORY
At Syria’s biggest chemical weapons facility and missile base at al-Safir, 20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo in northern Syria, North Koreans have long been crucial to the development of the Syrian military program.
The sprawling ballistic missile and chemical weapons development facility was designed and built by North Korean engineers and specialists in the 1990s, and has since been frequently expanded.
It is equipped with underground bunkers to store the missiles and their launchers, and houses a large number of Scud-D missiles purportedly armed with chemical weapons warheads.
It is here that at least a dozen North Korean military missile engineers live in an exclusive housing compound surrounded by manicured lawns, trees, and equipped with a swimming pool.
In the province of Halab, 301 kilometers north of Damascus, the al-Safir chemical weapons and missile production and storage facility operated by the SSRC covers more than five square kilometers of land and houses chemical weapons production, weaponization and testing facilities, ballistic missiles, their launch systems, anti-aircraft missiles, and radar facilities, and is equipped with sprinkler systems, cooling systems, and underground storage tanks.
Previously called the Aleppo Missile Factory, al-Safir has an underground site producing and upgrading Scud ballistic missiles, but in recent years the base has expanded its mandate to include the development of chemical warheads for the North Korean-supplied ballistic missiles.
It is said to be one of the earliest Syrian chemical weapons testing sites, with North Korean-provided Scud-B missiles tipped with chemical warheads developed there since 2001.
Satellite imagery shows a rapid expansion of the base between 2005 and 2008, and by 2010 al-Safir had three chemical weapons-production facilities, as well as a warhead and a Scud missile storage facility.
BEYOND AL-SAFIR: RENEWED COOPERATION?
North Korea has also recently strengthened missile cooperation with Damascus, signing new secret military agreements in 2012.
Pyongyang deploys engineers, scientists and military technical experts and advisors to the Syrian battlefield.
North Korea is known to train Syrian missile engineers and sells missile expertise, components and technology to perfect Syria’s chemical warfare arsenal.
Numerous sources say that Syrian engineers are staying in Pyongyang to acquire technology and training, and that North Korean weapons specialists are based in Syria at chemical weapons and ballistic missile facilities run by the SSRC. North Korea is compensated with Iranian and Syrian financing and Syrian barter of agricultural products, including cotton and food, and as well as computers, say sources familiar with the relationship.
In addition to North Korean military advisors at the al-Safir missile and chemical base near Aleppo, there are additional North Korean scientists and military specialists at another major ballistic missile and chemical weapons facility near Hama, and at the main SSRC headquarters of Syria’s missile and chemical weapons program at Jamraya outside Damascus, officials from three separate governments, Syrian opposition sources and independent arms control experts each confirmed.
2013 : ISRAEL RESPONDS
In January of this year, Israel launched an air attack with F-16 fighter jets to bomb the Jamraya SSRC headquarters near Damascus. The targeted SSRC facilities are the command and control centers of the Syrian ballistic missile and chemical warfare development programs.
In May, Israel launched another air attack on the same target at Jamraya.
The Damascus SSRC bases also house the offices and living quarters of North Korean military specialists in Syria contracted by the SSRC to provide assistance for their chemical weapons and ballistic missile development program.
The SSRC site of the January and May Israeli bombings is also where a North Korean communications center run by a North Korean company is based. The entity is believed to be a front company controlled by the North Korean People’s Army contracted by the SSRC to provide banned components and material for ballistic missiles to Damascus.
ONGOING NORTH KOREAN INVOLVEMENT
North Korea has clandestinely sold and transferred to Syria chemical weapons components, materials and delivery systems; ballistic missile systems, nuclear weapons components,; and provided scientists, advisors and technical experts to Syria to help in developing their weapons of mass destruction program.
Some of these North Korean military cooperation projects with Syria are ongoing.
In recent years, Pyongyang has shifted from selling complete missile systems to “turning instead to the export of missile components and materials.”
A 2009 CIA report to the U.S. Congress said that Syria, with one of the largest ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East and one that is largely supplied by North Korea, was now developing longer-range missiles “with assistance from North Korea” that could reach all of Israel.
Syria has bought hundreds of SCUD missile from North Korea, provided them the technology and components to manufacture their own, and continues to provide missile engineers and experts to upgrade their indigenous production of missile technology.
In testimony before the U.S. Congress on April 11, former CIA director Woolsey called North Korean assistance “instrumental in developing…Syria’s ballistic missile programs.”
“Syria relied on North Korean technology to upgrade its Scuds,” successfully testing missiles in 2007 “thanks to technological assistance from North Korea that further improved the Scud-D and extended its range,” he said.
Iran, Syria and North Korea collaborated in the joint “planning, establishment and management” of five Syrian Chemical weapons facilities for “indigenous production of (chemical weapons) precursors,” according to Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Woolsey said the chemical weapons production program was “in fact a trilateral collaboration” between North Korea, Syria, and Iran.
Syrian “efforts to develop more advanced chemical warheads were also based on assistance from North Korea, “according to a report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The Center said that Syrian chemical weapons systems included “new long-range North Korean Scud Cs, with ranges of up to 600 km and possible nerve gas warheads.”
CHEMICAL WEAPONS COLLABORATION & SCUD EXTENSION PROGRAM
Last month, a rebel released video after a battle in Aleppo titled “Chemical Weapons Equipment belonging to Assad Forces,” purportedly showing rebels holding gas masks, chemical warfare suits, and chemical weapons equipment they captured from a military base in Aleppo.
In September 2009, 14,000 chemical weapon-protection outfits were seized by South Korea on a cargo vessel from North Korea en route to Syria. Later in the fall of 2009, North Korea attempted to provide Syria with chemical weapons reagents and 14,000 additional chemical warfare suits which matched the ones seized earlier in South Korea. That cargo of ampules carrying powdered and liquid reagents designed to detect chemical weapons materials in the air was seized in Greece on a Liberia-flagged ship bound for Syria.
In mid-2011, intelligence agencies reported North Korean military technicians were at the Jabal Taqsis mountain chemical weapons and missile facility near Hama run by the SSRC upgrading previously supplied North Korean Scud missiles with chemical warheads. The secret chemical and missile facility was earlier built with the assistance of North Korean engineers.
Also in 2011, North Korea supplied Syria with proscribed specialist “maraging” steel used to extend their ballistic missile warhead range to 700 kilometers, placing all of Israel within the range of the North Korean-supplied weapons.
The steel delivery was part of a larger bilateral military agreement between North Korea and Syria to build a new missile factory at a chemical weapons site near Homs, expected to be operational by this month.
In November 2011 the German daily Die Welt wrote that North Korea was helping construct a secret missile assembly facility near the city of Homs – under the supervision of the SSRC. North Korea provided technology to manufacture maraging steel, banned under the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime and used for missile skins and nuclear centrifuges.
Syria signed a military agreement with Pyongyang for North Korean engineers to staff the project, assist with waste management and quality control, provide construction equipment, and reinforce Scud-D missile warheads and combustion tubes with maraging steel.
The proscribed materials, a violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874 banning the North from arms exports, were delivered in 2009 and completion of the project is expected this summer.
BALLISTIC COMPONENT PROVISION
In May 2012, 445 graphite cylinders from North Korea, a key component of ballistic missiles, were intercepted on a ship destined for Syria. The shipper, the North Korean Tangun Trading company, and the listed recipient, Electric Parts, a front company of the SSRC, are both designated by the U.N. and other countries as involved in nuclear, chemical weapons and ballistic missile trafficking.
The following month, European intelligence agencies reported that North Korean scientists in Syria upgraded the accuracy and capability of Scud D missiles’ to use chemical warheads. North Korean engineers from the Tangun Trading Corporation were working with military experts from the SSRC on the missile development project.
“North Korean engineers (are) now working clandestinely in Syria contracted by Damascus to extend the 300-mile range and accuracy of the missiles,” wrote Jane’s International Defense Review.
Also in June, the UN reported that “ballistic missile-related items” were seized on a ship from North Korea “en route to Lattakia, Syrian Arab Republic.” The North Korean Korea General Trading Corporation, a front company for the Korean People’s Army, was delivering the material to the Handasieh General Organization Engineering Industries, a front company of the SSRC.
“A member state has stated however that the real consignor was Korea Tangun Trading Company,” wrote a United Nations committee investigating the trafficking in banned weapons.
In July, the U.S. imposed sanctions on “Handasieh (aka General Organization for Engineering Industries)…for acting for or on behalf of the SSRC, the entity responsible for the development of biological and chemical weapons as well as the missiles to deliver them.”
“The Scientific Studies and Research Center was designated by the United States…for its involvement in the Syrian weapon of mass destruction programs,” a July 2012 statement from the U.S. Department of the Treasure read.
In August, Syrian and North Korean missile specialists tested missile systems to deliver chemical warheads at the SSRC chemical research facility in Aleppo. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported “five or six empty shells capable of delivering poison gas were fired by tanks and aircraft at the Aleppo base.”
The highly secured compound produces chemical munitions and houses the North Korean supplied Scud missiles and launch ramps serving as their delivery systems.
In September, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to request that Iraq deny a Pyongyang request seeking permission for a North Korean aircraft suspected of smuggling weapons to fly over Iraq airspace to Syria. Al-Maliki rejected Pyongyang’s request.
CHEMICAL WEAPON STRATEGY
In a September, former Syrian Army chief of staff of chemical warfare Major-General Adnan Sillu confirmed Assad’s government had plans to transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah and to use them on the Syrian people “as a last resort.”
“We were in a serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas,” Sillu said. “We discussed this as a last resort –– such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo,” said the general.
Sillu told CNN that joint chemical warfare research was conducted at Al Safir. “There are warehouses there used for experiments on poisonous grenades that contain sarin gas, tabun gas and mustard gas,” he said.
Sillu said that the head of the Syrian chemical warfare program had visited North Korea several times “to buy protective equipment against poisonous materials, and chemical equipment.”
That same month, Syrian rebels released a video purportedly taken inside chemical weapons complexes.
“The chemical warehouse is connected with an underground tunnel that goes to the airport,” says an unidentified man over video of a tunnel exit big enough for large vehicles to pass. He identifies footage of a warehouse that “contains many chemical weapons, chemical bombs of different sizes, from the size of a hand grenade up to big rockets” adding that “experts from North Korea and Iran” live in an adjacent building.
The video narrator said that Northeast of Damascus alongside a highway is a chemical weapons storage facility “where experts from Iran and North Korea are present” and a chemical battalion headquarter with warehouses of chemical weapons at the base where “experts from North Korea and Iran” were housed in a building close by.
By late 2012, American officials had ample evidence that North Korea was providing Syria with new Scud missile technology and North Korean experts were working in Syria to upgrade the Scuds used for their chemical weapons program.
Headline image: Curtis Melvin, NK Econwatch
WASHINGTON D.C. - North Korean military experts are deployed on the frontlines of the war in Syria, providing key assistance to the Assad government’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs, according to foreign intelligence, sources within the Syrian resistance and independent analysts.
North Korean military assistance to Syria is part of a lengthy covert war that has quietly raged for a decade, leaving a trail of dead North Korean and Syrian military scientists.
Nate Thayer is an award winning investigative journalist with 25 years of experience in Asia, specializing in conflict, intelligence, security, transnational crime. He has a noted expertise on Cambodia and a current focus on North Korea.