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03/07/2013

North Korea's Iran and Syria connection

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This picture taken on March 6 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows soldiers of the Korean People's Army in military training at an undisclosed place in North Korea. (AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS )

North Korea today threatened to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States, just as the UN security council imposed yet another round of sanctions against Pyongyang in a renewed effort to stop its nuclear and missile programs.

Little noticed this week in all the rhetoric was a revelation before a U.S. Congressional committee of “mysterious” cooperation between the nuclear-armed state and two of its potentially dangerous allies in the Middle East – Iran and the teetering regime of Syria.

The North Korean saga grabbed international headlines following a rather bizarre trip there by basketball star Dennis Rodman and the regime’s more serious threat to cancel the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War.

But on Tuesday, David Asher,  senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, testified in unsparing detail before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on the implications of North Korea's expanding nuclear program.

I was in Washington and met with Asher at his office, not far from the State Department where he worked as coordinator of the North Korea Working Group designed to curtail the nuclear threat. He laid out what he described as “very ominous” developments.

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North Korean citizens and soldiers attend a rally in Pyongyang March 7, in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency. (REUTERS/KCNA)

Asher said that back in July 2002, North Korean president Kim Yong-nam led “a high level delegation to Damascus, Syria for a mysterious purpose.” They inked an agreement of “scientific and technological cooperation.”

(Kim has served as head of state of the reclusive country since 1998 under the “supreme leader” Kim Jong-il and  now his son, Kim Jong-un.)

Asher told the Congressional committee this agreement was “the keystone for the commencement of covert nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria, which ultimately resulted in the construction of a nuclear reactor complex” in Syria  - a reactor that was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in 2007.

Asher also said that the pact between Syria and North Korea led possibly to “other forms of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) cooperation.”  Right now, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are the subject of much international concern as the civil war threatens the rule of the embattled President Bashar Assad.

Ten years after that Syrian visit, Kim Yong-nam was in Tehran last September where he announced a “Scientific Cooperation Agreement” with the Iranian government that has been desperately trying to build up its own nuclear program.

Asher says the agreement is “almost the same” as that signed between North Korea and Syria and that it needs to be “aggressively monitored” to see whether it becomes “a lead indicator of North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons cooperation.”

“We need to organize and commence a global plan of action against Pyongyang’s proliferation apparatus… and overseas presence,” Asher concludes.

You can read Asher’s full testimony here: http://www.cnas.org/asher-northkorea-testimony

 

Julian Sher is a journalist with the Star's Enterprise reporting team. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and many conflicts throughout Africa and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @juliansher

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