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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean and Syrian officials signed a series of agreements in Damascus on Wednesday covering trade, laborers, scientific and technical cooperation, and dozens of other areas, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
DPRK Ministry of External Economic Relations chief Kim Yong Jae arrived in Damascus on Saturday to begin the 11th round of meetings under the DPRK-Syria Joint Economic Committee with his counterpart Mamoun Hamdan, head of the Syrian Ministry of Finance (MOF).
In terms of utilizing North Korean laborers in Syria — a practice technically prohibited under UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions — the main area of cooperation will be in construction, SANA reported.
But despite both countries being under heavy UN, U.S., and EU sanctions, the two have openly claimed in the past and at the end of this week’s meetings that they intend to fight sanctions by working together.
Areas included in the protocols and agreements, SANA reported, include financial, commercial, banking, customs, industrial standards and quality mechanisms, electricity, infrastructure, and investments.
While most are only brief mentions without additional details, many could relate to plans for North Korea to participate in reconstruction efforts in Syria — an area in which two have long voiced their intention to cooperate.
Some ways which the report did say North Korea can specifically help in construction include teaching the “experiences of Korean companies” in “rapid construction techniques.”
North Korea’s architects and builders could assist with construction planning and execution, utilizing geographical data, “technical specifications related to building materials, facility design, and seismic protection,” the report said.
Real estate and investment cooperation were also included in the protocols, it added.
During a meeting earlier in the week with MEER chief Kim Yong Jae, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis reportedly said some of the first joint projects to come would be in “two test projects in the field of reconstruction.”
Kim responded that North Korea “intends to participate in the reconstruction efforts, particularly for residential neighborhoods and public facilities,” according to SANA.
North Korea is indeed in the midst of a construction boom both in the form of new apartment buildings and factories in the capital Pyongyang and across the country, as well as large tourist resorts and infrastructure projects.
These are typically built with rapid speed, as the Syrians pointed out, though North Korean building methods are still considered to lag far behind international quality and safety standards, and most buildings are still made entirely of makeshift cement bricks.
Two other areas — an “executive program in the field of scientific research” and cooperation in technical assistance — are also likely to raise eyebrows in the U.S. and elsewhere, though details of what these items in the protocols entail were also not provided by the MOF or SANA reports.
The military field is one possible area where the two may be continuing cooperation under the radar, as reports emerged in 2016 that North Koreans were providing active assistance on the ground in the ongoing war in Syria.
Weapons trade and technical assistance are other areas in which the two countries are suspected of cooperating, with the latest report from the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) on North Korean sanctions stating that evidence suggests such activity is ongoing.
Rounding out the fields of cooperation included in the signed protocols Wednesday, according to SANA, were higher education, agriculture and fishing, transport, tourism, sports, water resources, health, and social welfare.
Many of these were also the subject of agreements during the 10th round of meetings held in May 2018 in Pyongyang, while follow-up talks such as those with the Syrian Ministry of Industry have also taken place in the past year.
The two sides agreed this week to return to Pyongyang to hold the 12th session of the DPRK-Syria Joint Economic Committee at the end of next year.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad still owes DPRK leader Kim Jong Un a visit to Pyongyang, as promised in a meeting with DPRK Ambassador to Syria Mun Jong Nam last year.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: SANA