If Assad is the murderer of Idlib, Kim Jong-un was an accessory

With impeccable timing, His Porcine Majesty has sent friendly greetings to one of his best customers:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a congratulatory message to Syria over the founding anniversary of the country’s ruling party, Pyongyang’s media said Friday, amid global condemnation against Damascus’s suspected chemical weapon attack on civilians.

The North’s leader sent the message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the controlling Ba’ath party, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s main newspaper.

The move is seen to be aimed at showing friendly ties between Pyongyang and Damascus as about 90 people were killed by the Syrian government’s suspected uses of chemical weapons Tuesday against a rebel-held area in the northern part of the country.

“The two countries’ friendly relations will be strengthened and developed, given their fight against imperialism,” Kim was quoted as saying by the newspaper. North Korea has long been suspected of cooperating with Syria over nuclear programs. [Yonhap]

A few years ago, I noted the extensive and well-documented evidence of North Korea’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons program. Joseph Bermudez has also summarized some of that evidence, including photographs published by the U.N. Panel of Experts of some of the thousands of chemical suits, masks, and agent indicator ampules intercepted by Greece, South Korea, and Turkey while in transit from North Korea to Syria (mostly through China).

U.S. intelligence officials also believe North Korea has links to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which the New York Times calls Syria’s “main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons.”

Although North Korea’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons programs predates the Syrian Civil war, Bruce Bechtol has described how it increased during the war. Other reports have alleged that North Koreans have been present in Syria during the civil war, where they have advised Assad’s army in a number of ways, including by helping it operate vacuum dryers used to dry liquid chemical agents and the SCUD missiles that are sometimes used to deliver those agents.

In Idlib, the murder weapon was probably sarin, another nerve agent North Korea is believed to possess in quantity, but which Syria most likely produced domestically with North Korean technical assistance. If Assad was the murderer of Idlib, then, Kim Jong-un was likely an accessory.

In another sense, we should feel fortunate that Assad’s use of WMD against his own people is merely chemical. As Yonhap’s story also notes, North Korea built (and had nearly completed) a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert near Deir-al-Zour, in an area now under the control of ISIS, before the Israeli Air Force destroyed it. This CIA video summarizes North Korea’s involvement in the construction of that reactor here:

For now, it is good that Assad knows that he cannot use WMD with impunity, and that whatever affection existed between Trump and Putin before is over for now. The President may also think he can intimidate Xi Jinping by taking in bomb damage reports while coolly telling his dinner guest to try the veal. Still, consider the possibility that Xi will be salivating for an entirely different feast if he thinks we’re about to tie ourselves down half a world away.

Our response to the use of nerve gas against children and families — or in places crowded with them — must be more than nothing. But that response must also be less than stage-diving into the quicksand of the Middle East, and a very real risk of conflict with Russia, without a plausible plan to end the slaughter. It is wrong to say that Syria is not our problem; it is. It nearly destroyed Iraq, it’s destroying Europe, and it may yet destroy Jordan and destabilize Turkey. It could flood the world with a generation of terrorists and incubate another generation that will follow them.

It is also wrong to believe that there is any quick solution to this crisis, given the state to which things have descended today. That’s why I was skeptical of President Obama’s abortive, too-little, too-late intervention in 2013. Those same questions remain relevant today.

The only permanent solution to the horrors in Syria will be to arm, train, and equip enough moderate and secular Syrians to retake most their country, stabilize the front lines, raise the political and financial costs for Russia and Iran, and negotiate either a peace or a sustainable division of the country. Do any moderate or secular Syrian forces still survive between the hammers of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the anvils of Assad, Hezbollah, and Putin? The history of how Obama allowed these people to be slaughtered — even as he allowed a morbidly obese high school dropout who tortures small animals and masturbates to bondage porn get a nuclear arsenal — ought to fill the main lobby of his presidential library.

Which brings me to my final question. Who still remembers yesterday, when North Korea was our greatest national security threat? Even in light of what happened in Idlib, isn’t that still the case? Wasn’t North Korea supposed to be the topic of tonight’s dinner conversation? Can we pressure, contain, and deter Kim Jong-un if our forces and our national will are invested half a world away? Do our plans for Syria and North Korea involve being prepared to fight two wars on different sides of the world if necessary? Must North Korea always be the crisis that builds while America is distracted on other continents? Could we have at least taken the modest step of putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism before we bombed Syria? There may be good answers to all of those questions. Now is the time to ask them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *