CHENNAI: On Sunday, just days before the historic Trump-Kim summit, North Korea’s state-controlled media announced that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would fly to Pyongyang and meet the North Korean leader.
Kim Jong-Un is yet to host a foreign leader in Pyongyang. So, if Assad lands in the Korean capital, it would be a first.
But, why would Kim want to meet Assad now, just days before a much-anticipated summit with the US President?
According to a Washington Post report, Assad made comments about a possible trip to Pyongyang while receiving credentials from the newly appointed North Korean ambassador to Syria, last week. The same report called it “Assad’s outreach to North Korea” and not vice-versa. So, it appears it was the Syrian strongman who had sought a meeting with Kim, who then okayed it.
“I’m going to DPRK to meet His Excellence Kim Jong-Un,” the Korean Central News Agency quoted Assad as saying.
Since 2011, the Syrian leader, battling a civil war at home, has made just one foreign trip, which was to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is his closest international ally. Thus, Assad’s sudden eagerness to fly to North Korea is worth analysing.
Although not well covered by the international media, Syria and North Korea have enjoyed close ties for decades. Pyongyang has stood steadfast behind Assad as he weathered international opprobrium over Syria’s seven-year-old civil war. On top of that, North Korea has extended considerable material support to Assad’s military, engaged in a bitter tussle with Sunni extremists.
So, should the Syrian President be worried as Kim prepares to meet Trump?
Good old allies
Ties between North Korea and Syria dates back to 1960s when the two were Soviet clients.
At that time, Pyongyang provided military aid to Syria, then fighting Israel. During the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, North Korean weapons and dozens of instructors and fighter pilots landed in Syria.
Fully aware of North Korea’s usefulness to Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, after he took over the reigns of power from his father in 2000, made it a priority to cultivate closer ties with the North Korea leadership.
Back then, Assad was also interested in expanding Syria’s civilian nuclear program and one of the few countries that could help him was North Korea. During the Cold War, the North had collaborated closely with the Soviet Union in the nuclear energy front, and thus, gained expertise.
In 2000, Pyongyang was desperate for economic assistance. Soviet Union, which had been a key donor to the North, had ceased to exist nine years back.
Assad knew very well that the cash-strapped Koreans wouldn’t hesitate to share nuclear and ballistic missile technology, in return for money. And he was not wrong.
In 2001, less than a year after Assad took power, a group of North Korean nuclear scientists landed in Damascus to help Syria assemble its first nuclear reactor. Its components are believed to have been manufactured in North Korea. The reactor, however, was subsequently blown to smithereens by Israel, in a 2007 air raid.
Nonetheless, the close cooperation between the two continued and their ties reached new heights in 2011 with the outbreak of a civil war in Syria. Assad had reportedly sought and received Korean aid.
According to the US-Korea Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on Korean affairs, Assad and Kim were constantly in touch with each other during the war’s initial years. They had reportedly exchanged over ten personal letters in 2013 alone. Coincidentally, it was a time when the Syrian regime was rapidly losing ground to a motley crew of extremists backed by the US and Sunni Arab countries.
And for Assad, Kim proved to be a friend in need.
In July of that year, a team of Syrian delegates touched down in Pyongyang and was given an audience with the Korean leader. They reportedly discussed ways in which the North can help Assad battle his enemies.
Soon, dozens of North Korean advisors were in Damascus. Weapons that were flown to Damascus from Pyongyang included anti-tank missiles, portable air defense systems and rifles.
Crucially, there are reports that Syria had received Korean assistance in expanding its chemical weapons program.
According to a leaked UN report, between 2012 and 2017, there were 40 illegal shipments from North Korea to Syria -- illegal because they violated UN sanctions.
A panel of experts from the world organisation, who authored the report, claims the consignments included materials that could help the Syrian regime develop a chemical arsenal. They also asserted that North Korean advisors were manning Syria’s chemical weapons manufacturing and storage facilities.
Of course! One could question the veracity of the report or outrightly dismiss it as western propaganda.
Yet, the fact that Assad, a man who rarely travels abroad, has decided fly to the Korean capital for a meeting with Kim, shows the level of priority Damascus attaches to its relations with Pyongyang.
Should Assad be worried?
If North Korea, a long-term ally of Syria has decided to extend an olive branch to the United States -- their mutual foe -- it is only natural for the Syrian President to feel the heat.
If Trump and Kim get along well and reach a mutually acceptable deal (a big ‘if’), it could open the doors to a future US-North Korea partnership, which would be of benefit to the Kim regime as it would likely bring the much needed economic relief.
So, in a tradeoff with the US, would Kim ditch Assad?
Afterall, North Korea’s ties with Syria have been grounded in Pyongyang’s need for cash and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle.
If ties with the US improve, and as a result, Korea’s economic situation betters, would it be rational for Kim to continue to support Assad the way he does now?
Also, Washington is aware of North Korea’s dealings with Syria. It remains to be seen if, in return for economic assistance and security guarantees, Trump would pressure Kim into ending his support for Syria.
For Assad, North Korea has been among a handful of useful allies. Maintaining this alliance would be of interest to him.
So, if he meets Kim, Assad would want to elicit a commitment from the North Korean leader of continued assistance to Syria.
Then there is the question of military secrets.
Having trained the Syrian regime forces and its ally -- Hezbollah, North Koreans are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Assad's fighting force. Moreover, if North Koreans have indeed been manning Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, Pyongyang would be in possession of vital intelligence on the extent and nature of its chemical weapons program.
Although North Korea has made attempts to reach out to the US in the past, Assad would not have imagined that a North Korean leader would make overtures to a POTUS.
Now that Kim is about to meet Trump, Assad would want to ensure that intelligence about Syria’s WMD arsenal or other military secrets would not be passed onto the US.