Syria and North Korea: The Underground Connection
Syria and North Korea: The Underground Connection

JURIST Guest Columnist Morse Tan of Northern Illinois University College of Law discusses North Korea and Syria nuclear programs and argues that the noticeable links between the two pose a significant threat to global security…

More links North Korea and Syria than what many realize. Besides a similar population of approximately 20 to 25 million people, they both have run police states, both espouse an “ideology fusing nationalism and socialism” and have concentrated rulership in only one family. They have assisted each other in the past—from economic agreements to weapons exchanges. Both countries consider the US as a major enemy. North Korea has expressed their support of Syria’s President, President Assad. These linkages may not be for the better.

The connection between North Korea and Syria poses an international security risk. Syria had originally signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons where they agreed to only use nuclear powers for peaceful purposes. The US has even created the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), which gives sanctions to any individual, government or private entity who participates in proliferation activities. North Korea has engaged in nuclear proliferation activities to both Syria and Iran.

North Korea stockpiles biological weapons, not to mention its chemical weapons, increasingly longer range missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea has 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons, according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. North Korea profits through exporting weapons to various states such as Syria.

The military proliferation to Syria is not a novelty; it has taken place over decades. In 1973 North Korea assisted Syria in Syria’s surprise attack on Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Since that earlier encounter, North Korea has helped Syria in various ways, including by sending them materials and advisers. For example, the former defense minister of North Korea, Kim Kyok-sik, bolstered Syria, including through joint military training exercises. In 2009, a Syrian ship was interdicted in Greece carrying materials pertaining to chemical weapons, including “20,000 pieces of protective clothing for atomic, biological and chemical warfare.” The North Korean military has been working with Syrian troops during the present civil war. Furthermore, reports indicate that “not only had North Korea transferred to Syria the technology for producing chemical warheads, but that North Korea has been continuously providing Syrian chemical weapons facilities with ‘after-sales services'”. Syria’s chemical weapons derive from North Korea’s technology. North Korea instructed Syria in the creation of an edifice for processing plutonium. As Syria fired its missiles against rebels, North Korea tested its missiles across the Pacific Ocean that same week.

Both North Korea and Syria have their own respective nuclear program. North Korea’s nuclear program started during the early 1990s. After ratifying the NPT, North Korea became the first country in the history of this treaty to attempt withdrawal from it. In 2002 North Korea admitted to a nuclear program involving uranium. North Korea has tested several nuclear devices. North Korea has enough fissile materials for approximately six-twelve nuclear devices.

Courtesy of North Korea, Syria has a nuclear program as well. Syria has a nuclear Research and Development program that the US warily watches. Syria has made attempts to create a nuclear program that supersede “Israel’s conventional force superiority.” [PDF] The Israeli air force destroyed Syria’s nuclear facility in a tactical strike.

North Korea also arms terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah. North Korea enabled Hezbollah to build underground structures and bunkers effectively used against Israel in the 2007 war. North Korea supplied components of missiles made by Iran and exported to Hezbollah via Syria. Indeed, Syria and North Korea signed a mutual-defense treaty with Iran.

North Korea has also supplied a terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers have used missiles imported from North Korea. More specifically:

In the video, LTTE Sea Tigers can be seen using a variant of the 107mm Katyusha rocket, fired from a lightweight tripod, in pairs. This is believed to be a variant of the Chinese Type 63 107mm launcher. The Chinese produce a single tube version called a Type 85 fired from a man-portable tripod, but the North Koreans produce a double version. This is quite a rare weapon.

North Korea also shipped various artillery shells and mortars to the Tamil Tigers in 2007.

North Korea and Syria have proved lethal to each other as well:

Not only have North Koreans reportedly been killed in Syria due to Syrian-North Korean joint proliferation, but Syrians also have died in North Korea. In April 2004 according to a report in the World Tribune, “a dozen Syrian technicians” were killed in an explosion at the train station in Ryongchon, near the Chinese border. While some speculated that the blast involved an assassination attempt against then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose train had passed through the station only hours before, the consensus reached was that the explosion involved “a train car full of missiles and components” to be shipped to Syria and that the accompanying technicians were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The military link between Syria and North Korea increases security risks and complications. North Korea’s proliferation of weapons and military expertise to countries such as Syria and Iran, among others, decreases stability and further jeopardizes peaceful prospects internationally, whether in the Middle East or the Pacific. Indeed as North Korea has been developing ICBM’s (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) that it calls the KN-06, no place in the world will be out of range from the threat of North Korean weapons of mass destruction. More and more, the danger is not just “over there”: it is here as well.

Morse Tan is Professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law. Professor Tan has written more law review articles on North Korea than any other scholar; his book “North Korea, International Law and the Dual Crises: Narrative and Constructive Engagement” is scheduled for publication by Routledge Press at the end of April 2015. He would like to acknowledge the aid of Christian Hall especially, Matt Palucki and Ryan Leibforth as well in preparing this piece.

Suggested citation: Morse Tan, Syria and North Korea: The Underground Connection, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Mar. 31, 2015,

This article was prepared for publication by Christina Alam, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at

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