Syrian government efforts to block a South Korean chemical-weapons inspector raise questions about whether it’s trying to conceal evidence of covert military cooperation with North Korea, according to four United Nations diplomats.
The Syrian government has refused to issue a visa to a South Korean chemical-weapons inspector with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to join its personnel rotation there, according to the diplomats, who have knowledge of the matter and asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to discuss it.
The Chemical Weapons Convention, the global treaty on chemical arms destruction that Syria signed on Oct. 14, doesn’t permit members to screen inspectors by nationality, and doing so may constitute non-compliance under both the convention and the disarmament agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia.
The inspector’s visa trouble undercuts public reports by Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint UN-OPCW mission, of “constructive cooperation” by the Assad regime. Two of the four diplomats said Kaag privately notified the South Korean government of her failure to negotiate the inspector’s travel papers during a Nov. 25-30 visit to Damascus, and also said it would be difficult to secure them in the future.
The inspector awaiting a visa to travel to Syria is a former South Korean defense ministry official, according to a South Korean official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.
The four UN diplomats said they think the Syrian government doesn’t want to allow a South Korean weapons expert into the country, where he might uncover evidence of North Korea’s covert cooperation with the regime.
North Korea began developing chemical weapons after state founder Kim Il Sung’s December 1961 “Declaration for Chemicalization,” which established research and development facilities, according to the white paper. North Korea is estimated to possess between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, according to a 2013 South Korean Foreign Ministry handbook on disarmament. The stockpile may be five times larger than that of Syria.
Many senior North Korean defense officials speak fluent Arabic, including Kim Kyok Sik, the former chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army. Kim served as a deputy military attache in the North Korean embassy in Damascus from June 1971 until April 1982, a period that included the 1973 Mideast War, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry’s directory of notable North Korean figures.
The UN Security Council can respond to confirmed acts of Syrian non-compliance with the chemical weapons destruction mission only if all 15 members, including Russia and China, agree on a resolution authorizing military or other action.
Israeli warplanes in 2007 destroyed a site where intelligence indicated that North Korea was helping construct a nuclear facility, according to former and current U.S. and Israeli officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence remains classified. Israel has never acknowledged conducting the attack.
While Syria doesn’t have diplomatic relations with South Korea, its diplomatic, economic and military ties with North Korea date to 1966.
In 1962, eight years before Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took power in a coup, the Syrian government rejected a South Korean offer to establish diplomatic relations, citing its ties to Israel, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s website.