Syria’s North Korean chemical connection

Syria’s North Korean chemical connection

This article appeared in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review on March 11, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
March 11, 2018

Security Council weapons inspectors monitoring North Korea’s compliance with United Nations sanctions have reportedly concluded that, for several years, the North has been selling Syria materials for the production of chemical weapons. Additional sanctions violations also are reported, but none compare to the gravity of this evidence that Pyongyang is trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology.

This information should be a pivot point for the United States and European governments that truly care about stopping North Korea’s nuclear programs and WMD proliferation. Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior today dramatically foreshadows exactly what it will do with nuclear and ballistic-missile technology as soon as it thinks it is safe to do so.

The U.N. report and other sources also indicate considerable involvement by Iran, China and Russia in financing and transporting North Korea’s chemical and other weapons-related materials to Syria. The complex web of business dealings shows serious, perhaps insoluble, problems in the enforcement of international sanctions applicable to both Pyongyang and Damascus. Of course, we cannot assume that the U.N. inspectors have uncovered the full extent of North Korea’s evasion of the applicable sanctions provisions. So Kim Jung-Un’s evasions and revenues might well be considerably greater than the information possessed by the U.N.

Significantly, we are considering a U.N. report — not the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. The information U.N. inspectors relied upon may well have come from American and other intelligence services, but the judgments are entirely those of U.N. officials. Tired (not to mention inaccurate) references to WMDs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq can remain unsaid.

North Korea’s chemical-weapons dealings with Syria are not the first time the two rogue states have partnered on WMDs. Starting in the late 1990s, they laid plans for a nuclear reactor. It was under construction in the Syrian desert when Israel’s air force destroyed it in September 2007. That reactor was almost certainly financed by Tehran, evidence of the nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea that continues to this day.

The communist dictatorship is, by all accounts, perilously close to being able to hit targets in the continental United States with thermonuclear warheads. Once that day arrives, any possibility of using military force to stop Pyongyang almost certainly disappears because of the risk that the North would retaliate with nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the Trump administration’s time to decide whether to act pre-emptively, or be required to accept a nuclear North Korea forever, is fast disappearing. The mere passage of time may decide the question for us.

Those content with living with a nuclear North Korea have argued that it can be contained and deterred like the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This assessment is deeply flawed because the Kim family’s bizarre government is hardly likely to conform to our expectations of responsible behavior by a nuclear power. Moreover, we are near entering not a bipolar nuclear standoff like the Cold War, but a multipolar nuclear world where deterrence is utterly untested and unknown.

And even worse, the number of countries that might quickly become nuclear-weapon states is limitless if North Korea is prepared to sell nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile technology for hard currency.

Time is running out before this nightmare becomes reality.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.


Ambassador John Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. He served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005-2006. He was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 to 2005. In the Reagan Administration, he was an Assistant Attorney General.