August 18, 2008

North Korea names ambassador to Syria - nothing new

A headline today on the Associated Press wire, North Korea announces ambassador to Syria, starts with a misleading sentence: "North Korea has named an ambassador to Syria, the communist country's official media said Monday, following U.S. allegations the two countries engaged in nuclear cooperation."

This phrasing gives the impression that the two countries are increasing the level of their diplomatic relations. Syria and North Korea have had diplomatic relations for decades, as well as a close military and technology relationship. This announcement is nothing new - perhaps it should read, "North Korea has named a new ambassador to Syria...."

As far back as the mid-1970's, North Korean Air Force MiG-21 pilots were stationed at an air base in southern Syria, and routinely flew Syrian Air Force aircraft on operational missions.

In 1990, during a visit of the North Korean president to Syria, a deal was signed for the sale of North Korean "Scud C" (North Korean reverse-engineered Egyptian Scud B) to Damascus. The missiles were delivered by sea and air over the next few years. In 1993, for example, two huge Russian AN-124 CONDOR transports delivered missiles and transporter-erector-launchers to Damascus International Airport, in plain view for the world to see. I was there and saw it - impressive aircraft. Not only did the North Koreans sell missiles to Syria, they built two missile production and maintenance facilities in northern Syria.

The cooperation did not stop with ballistic missiles and related technology transfer. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected North Korean nuclear facility in the deserts of northeastern Syria near Dayr al-Zawr. Although both Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation, Israel released compelling evidence, and Syria continues to refuse access to the site for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

Back to the article - the bottom line is that the naming of a new North Korean ambassador to Syria is routine.

Click image for larger viewWARNING - War Story: The North Korean embassy in Damascus also has a defense attaché office, headed up by a colonel. When I was the US air attaché to the US Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995, the North Korean defense attaché was a pretty nice guy. He did not speak English and I do not speak Korean, so we conversed in Arabic. His family was friendly, well as friendly as possible given the relations (or lack of) between the United States and North Korea. His daughter was quite an accomplished ballerina, but he was concerned about her getting decent training in North Korea.

Unfortunately, the colonel was killed in a car accident. Although we American officers were not supposed to attend the memorial service held by the Syrian attaché affairs office, we did. Big mistake - his usually friendly wife spent the first three minutes of her husband's eulogy berating the United States, looking right at us. Unfortunate, uncalled for and unnecessary.