February 2, 2010

North Korea resumes military assistance to Syria

North Korean-made Scud C missileAccording to reports in a Japanese newspaper citing "Western intelligence sources," North Korea has resumed providing military materials and production assistance to Syria. Military assistance from North Korea was halted after Israel destroyed a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor at a remote location in northeastern Syria in September 2007.

Syrian and North Korea have a long history of military ties - the relationship goes back at least 35 years. In the mid-1970's, North Korean Air Force pilots were stationed at an air base in southern Syria and routinely flew Syrian Air Force MiG-21 fighter 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 between Syria and North Korea did not stop with ballistic missiles and related technology transfer. In 2007, North Korea provided a nuclear reactor - the reactor the Israeli Air Force bombed later that year. Both Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation. See my earlier article, The Israeli air strike in Syria - what the target wasn’t....

The fact that North Korea is resuming its military assistance to Syria is alarming enough, but the details of the new support are even more alarming. North Korea is allegedly helping Syria develop the capability to manufacture maraging steel at a North Korean-designed and built facility in Homs.

Maraging steel is a high-grade alloy with various applications, including golf clubs and high-performance bicycle frames. Although Syria does have one mediocre golf course and quite a few bicycles, I suspect the maraging steel is destined for the alloy's more popular applications - maraging steel is a key component in the manufacture of rocket/missile bodies, missile warheads and gas separation centrifuges. It is critical in the uranium enrichment process.

Missiles, warheads and centrifuges - where else have we seen this? How about in the three nations that I believe comprise the real "axis of evil" - North Korea, Iran and Syria. See my earlier article, The real axis of evil.

As I have explained in earlier articles, intelligence analysts watch for indicators of certain activities, templates of actions that indicate an event of interest or concern. Without revealing any sensitive sources or methods, acquisition of maraging steel is one indicator of a nuclear weapons program.

I hope the revelation that Syria is seeking the capability to produce maraging steel has set off some alarm bells at Langley and the Pentagon. If not, it should.