For the last year few years, Syria has been probably one of the troubled places on earth. Since a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad transformed into a brutal civil war and, in turn, into an international proxy conflict, the sheer scale of the destruction has had enormous ramifications across the globe, not least of which is Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
But thousands of miles from the country’s capital, the Ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic to the DPRK, Tammam Sulaiman, is busy with the day to day duties involved in maintaining one of Assad’s most unlikely friendships.
“After I was assigned here, for three years now I haven’t gone to Syria,” he tells NK News. “Of course we follow the news from Syria, day-by-day, minute-by-minute. We wish to see the day that this current crisis ceases to exist and things are better and the people reunite much like they were before 2011.”
The DPRK continues to maintain a full embassy in Damascus, despite Sulaiman admitting that it has been “hit a few times by shrapnel.” And, for its part, Syria continues to maintain an embassy in Pyongyang, some 7,700km away.
PYONGYANG – DAMASCUS LINKS
But what, then, is the nature of DPRK-Syria relations in 2017? Above all, Sulaiman says that Kim Jong Un’s government has provided steadfast support for Damascus since the outbreak of civil war.
“In every meeting, every function, every symposium, every international meeting, the DPRK expresses support to us, they express solidarity – not only the media, even from the people,” he says. “It is not only a policy issue, it is a massive popular thing for the Korean people to stand in support of Syria, with the Syrian people.”
But rumors have swirled for years that a primary reason the two embassies remain open is because military cooperation, once no secret at all, continues to occur between the two allies.
Kim Jong Un’s government has provided steadfast support for Damascus since the outbreak of civil war
“I’m not aware of military cooperation, there is nothing that is like that really,” he says, while recognizing the history of “normal military cooperation and technical experience exchange.”
Asked about specific claims that DPRK missile scientists and other weapons experts helped Damascus during earlier parts of the civil war, however, Sulaiman is also clear.
“That is not true at all. At some point there was some news about this here and there, but there is nothing going on.”
DAY TO DAY IN NORTH KOREA
Life in Pyongyang must be quite a contrast for Sulaiman when compared to the other duty stations he has served in. From a UN stint in New York City between 1994 to 2000, to becoming Syria’s Ambassador in Australia, Sulaiman moved to Pyongyang in 2013, initially as chargé d’affaires at the embassy.
“I have been here now three years and a few months; it is very beautiful and I like it very much here,” he says, describing it as a “very friendly country” – even to foreigners.
Working alongside staff from about 25 diplomatic missions, Sulaiman says his North Korean hosts keep embassies surprisingly busy with a high frequency of diplomatic functions and trips.
“Unlike my experience in Australia, where the relationship with the government is only on specific functions – two or three functions over the year… (in Pyongyang) there are always opportunities to meet.”
“We in Syria respect the people of Korea – the DPRK – the leadership”
“I really marvel at their organization and punctuality in assembling all the different ambassadors, heads of missions or staff of UN organizations … (to) go at a certain time to visit the landmarks and different places,” he says. “I like it very much.”
And while it’s the policy of European Union countries based in Pyongyang to engage with the government on condition of simultaneously promoting human rights and denuclearization, Syria has a much more ‘respectful’ relationship with the North, Sulaiman explains.
“Of course we in Syria respect the people of Korea – the DPRK – the leadership, (and) the relations we have.” As such, beyond occasional homesickness for his country, Sulaiman says he doesn’t “really feel any kind of alienation” in the North.
He does, however, “suffer from the expense of some of the stuff and materials that are brought to Pyongyang,” a complaint other diplomats often raise when asked about life there.
“For regular daily basis things like vegetables, (the price) is fine,” he says. But some “specific items” cost far more, like the price of a bar of laurel soap imported from the now war-torn city of Aleppo.
“It’s $12 – a fortune; what is this?!” he exclaims. “In Syria it is much less than half that! This is the only problem that I might complain of, which is meant to say that there is nothing I can complain of here.”
THE NATURE OF RELATIONS
What, then, beyond rhetorical support flowing either way, constitutes the actual exchanges still taking place between the DPRK and Syria today?
“We have a bi-annual joint high-level ministerial commission that meets once in Pyongyang and once in Damascus. And then there are agreements in the economic field, in the cultural, educational, tourism, sports, and many other things,” he says.
“But in the last years because of the situation in Syria mainly – I wouldn’t say in Korea… things are a bit halted,” Sulaiman says. “(Now) it is from our side that things are not going as normal as one would expect.”
Given it appears that so little diplomatic exchange still takes place between Syria and North Korea, it’s natural to ask, then, what motivates the two countries to maintain such ties even today.
“Of course, we belong to different cultures in the Arab and Asian regions, but we have a lot in common to address the issues that really are at stake in the current times,” Sulaiman says. “The relations are strong, basically, because we share the same values: the same suffering, the same mentality, the same orientation.”
Above all, Sulaiman says, it’s because the two nations suffer from “the same colonial problem: when the U.S. intervened during the Korean War and, of course, the same thing happened in our region with Israel.”
“We share the same values: the same suffering, the same mentality, the same orientation”
This problem today is manifested in “intervention policies” that unfairly target the two countries through “economic measures, embargoes… and sanctions,” he argues.
Consequently, not because of policies originating in Damascus or Pyongyang, Sulaiman says it is the “Western countries” imposing sanctions that “are the main reason for the wretched case of the people in either country.”
When asked about human rights abuses and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, Sulaiman’s voice firms noticeably.
“I will answer anything you ask about human rights; anything,” he says. “But put it across the board. If it is across the board and to the same standard, we accept it, no question, no problem.”
But so long as U.S. officials go to Saudi Arabia “and bow to them… where women aren’t allowed to drive cars and are forced to wear headscarves,” he says he find criticism about North Korea’s human rights situation unfair. “(When) they only single out one country, then we refuse to see it.”
The same goes for the nuclear issue.
“If you ask ‘why is North Korea making nuclear armaments?’ (then) I as a friend of Korea, I would say ‘first put all countries under question and then I’ll answer you.’”
And while the UN has condemned North Korea multiple times for its development of nuclear weapons, Sulaiman asks, repeatedly, why the recently departed South Korean Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – a strong critic of Syria’s President – was unable to hold his birth country and the U.S. to the same standards.
“In the UN, once he is given a blue passport, Ban Ki-moon should not behave as the former South Korean foreign minister,” Sulaiman says. “(But) not one time… in eight years… did he denounce the American-South Korean military maneuvers.”
“You can say against North Korea whatever you want, but at least, one time, show honesty and integrity and say something criticizing the military maneuvers.”
“At least with the accusation by North Korea to South Korea that they are bringing nuclear weapons (to the peninsula), why doesn’t Ban Ki-moon ask (Seoul) to clarify this?”
Sulaiman’s position on the UN’s criticism is clear: “Ban Ki-moon never showed any integrity in his work. Not towards North Korea, not towards Syria.”
A ROSY FUTURE?
Given Russia’s significant war support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since September 2015, what does Sulaiman think about the future of international relations, especially in the shadow of a U.S. President who wants to warm Washington’s ties with Moscow?
“I lived in in New York, because of my work with the United Nations, for six years and when I see… these so-called accusations against Trump, that he is President Putin’s ally, I ask myself this question: ‘Why not?’”
“What is wrong with having good relations with Russia?” Sulaiman asks. “Why must there be animosity between the U.S. and Russia?”
“Ban Ki-moon never showed any integrity in his work. Not towards North Korea, not towards Syria”
Yet even if Trump does foster warmer relations with Russia, the possible knock-on effect of Washington’s relations with North Korea issues remains unclear. As a result, few foreign observers seem optimistic about the future of North Korean issues, with fears sharpened following the recent appointment of hardliners in Trump’s administration, as well as increasing consideration of pre-emptive strikes as a serious policy option.
But Sulaiman, who saw first hand what became of his own country and that of regional neighbors like Iraq and Libya, thinks things will be different for North Korea.
“I’m not pessimistic about it… and I will tell you why,” he says. “The only thing the U.S. could do is a military invasion of this country,” something that would only ever be a “last resort” for Washington.
But based on what he’s seen over the past three years, Sulaiman says “my feeling is that this is impossible: I don’t think the U.S. can intervene in a country like the DPRK.”
“I think this country is more fortified than one can imagine, because there is unity between the people and the leadership.”
Because of that, “escalation will do more damage to the U.S. and its interests in the region than damage to this country,” he says, underscoring the appreciation citizens have for their leadership.
“I’m not pessimistic about it”
“I visited many other countries, (but when) I look at this country I see that out of severe poverty… they do miracles here, really,” he says. “And it’s not like I’m saying what the state media says. In our country we don’t have this: we thought that we were living in prosperity before the war.”
“This country, after the sanctions and with the skills that they have, they are making miracles.”
Overall, Sulaiman says the outside world misunderstands North Korea because it observes it through the eyes of “the biased media.”
“I look at it and believe this is really a great country and I wish every country was like North Korea in their achievements and miracles,” he says. “What if they were not under sanctions? They would do even more.”
This article was updated on Feb 1, 2017, to add further clarity to a response on military cooperation.