North Korea: Committing Crimes Against Humanity in Two Regions of the World

By Robert Collins


Image source: AFP

A number of regimes across the world are guilty of crimes against humanity, but very few may be found guilty of such crimes simultaneously in different parts of the world. The Kim family is one of those regimes, however—crimes against humanity in the treatment of its own people as identified in the United Nations’ "Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI),” as well as crimes against humanity in the Kim regime’s longtime support of Syria’s Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population.

Arguably, individuals of the Kim regime are aiding and abetting the Syrian regime's commission of crimes against humanity when they knowingly provide chemical weapons support–through illicit supplies and North Korean trainers, for example–that are used to murder innocent civilians in Syria. As the recent attacks on Douma show us, unfortunately, Assad is attacking his own people with chemical weapons, and he is receiving outside support in the commission of these atrocities. This support comes from the Kim regime, in part.

The lethal nature of the chemical weapons that Syria’s President Assad is employing against his own people is far beyond shocking, as evidenced by the media visuals of the effect of these weapons against children of a political opposition group. This recent chemical attack at Douma by the Assad regime is a crime against humanity by almost anybody’s definition of the term and it demonstrates just how far the Assad regime will go to retain power. However, at the lowest tier of discussion on these crimes against humanity is the collusion between the Assad regime and North Korea’s Kim regime relative to chemical weapons sales, development, training, and targeting from North Korea to Syria. The chemical weapons used in Syria by the Assad regime are North Korean. As a result, the Kim regime’s aiding and abetting liability in the commission of crimes against humanity in Syria must be carefully considered.

The lessons of World War I led the West to refrain from further use of these terrible weapons, but not necessarily development. Most nation-states have acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but not all. Of those handful of states that have not acceded to the CWC, the most threatening is North Korea.[1] Not only does North Korea maintain a large stockpile of chemical weapons, enough to kill every South Korean several times over,[2] but the North’s Kim regime has been proliferating these weapons for decades. The regime continues to do so to nation-states whose values do not limit the use of such weapons in the offense.

How big is North Korea’s chemical weapons commitment to Syria and the rest of the Middle East? According to Rami Abd-al-Rahman, Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Arabic-speaking North Korean officers “are taking part alongside the regular forces.” Al-Rahman estimated that there are between 11 and 15 officers in such service. He added that the North Korean officers speak Arabic and are spread out on many fronts, including the Syrian Defense Ministry factories southeast of Aleppo and with the regime's forces. Al-Rahman said they do not take part in actual fighting, but provide the Assad army with logistic support and construct operational plans. "They also supervise the regime's artillery in the region," he said.[3] North Korean military officers can be seen visiting Syrian military casualties at the Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus in pictures online.[4]

North Korea began its chemical weapons program almost five decades ago. In a speech to the KPA Party Committee on December 25, 1961, Kim Il-sung issued instructions for the North Korean military to “chemicalize” (prepare for chemical warfare), citing the importance of such capabilities.[5] On October 8, 2011, two months before his death, Kim Jong-il stated in his last will and testament that North Korea needed sufficient nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as long-range missiles, to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula.[6]

Now, the Kim regime has committed as many as 6,000 North Korean personnel to serve North Korean interests in the Middle East and has maintained a military liaison in Syria since the 1960s that includes scientists, military personnel, and construction workers.[7] Those involved in proliferation support do so under the supervision of North Korea’s Office 99, a Korean Workers’ Party sub-organization assigned to the Party’s Munitions Industry Department. An escapee who escorted proliferated weapons from North Korea to intended destinations says the Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 leads all weapons export operations.[8] The North Korean scientists that are deployed to Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, rotate in and out every 3 to 6 months and they are supervised by Office 99.[9]

The Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) is the Kim regime’s front company for shipping the chemicals overseas. KOMID has worked with Syrian front companies to cooperate with Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which has led Syria’s chemical weapons program since 1970.[10][11]

In early September 2013, then South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin told then U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel that Syrians had visited the North’s notorious 105th Research Institute (cover name “Cancer Research Institute")[12] in Kanggye City, Jagang Province (Kanggye is center mass for North Korea’s defense industries).[13] However, North Korea has a vast research and development complex in the chemical field that goes far beyond the 105th Research Institute in Kanggye.

According to the 2012 South Korean Ministry of Defense White Paper, North Korea maintains a very significant chemical weapons R&D capability that has resulted in a stockpile of 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons.[14] This is enough to make 625,000-1,250,000 chemical rounds for air, special operations, or artillery (primary means) use. With its current stock, North Korea can cover the Seoul city limits area of 605 square kilometers four times over. Just 1,000 tons of the North’s chemical weapons have the capacity to kill up to 40 million South Koreans across the DMZ.[15] North Korea is capable of producing 5,000 tons of chemical weapons during peacetime and 12,000 tons during a crisis.[16]

The Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology in South Korea has reported to the South Korean National Assembly that North Korea has four military bases equipped with chemical weapons, 11 facilities where chemical weapons are produced and stored, and 13 locations where research and development is carried out related to chemical weapons.[17] These facilities are, for the most part, underground, giving U.S. intelligence limited opportunity to observe North Korean operations of chemical weapons units. Chemical weapons research facilities are concentrated in Hamhung, Kanggye, and North Pyongan Province. In a country where electricity is sparse for everyone but the highest of the elite, electrical power is prioritized to these facilities.[18] North Korea’s chemical research staff numbers at almost 600 personnel, and they are all subordinate not to the government, but to the Korean Workers’ Party.[19]

There has been significant writing on Syria’s chemical weapons program, its North Korea connection, and what can be done about it. Within that scope, there have been two significant efforts to this argument offered here. North Korea’s support for the Syrian chemical weapons program has been well laid out by Dr. Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University. His book entitled The Last Days of Kim Jong-il goes into this issue in depth and includes North Korea’s links to Hezbollah (a true threat that cannot even be imagined yet), and is a must read for those who would like to understand the Syria-North Korea connection.[20] From the opposite angle, distinguished journalist Claudia Rosett has expertly laid out how difficult it will be to enforce the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.[21] There are numerous other reports of the Syria-North Korea links in the chemical industry of varying detail. The point is that the evidence has been there for some time for Syria’s use of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (just view the pictures of the child victims available online), and there is no warning of consequences for North Korea.

We should realize that North Korean efforts to move its technology via undetectable routes are nothing new. They do the same for its illicit drugs, arms sales, and technology acquisition. Pyongyang has one of the world’s most sophisticated global procurement networks.[22] As a United Nations Panel of Experts Report on Security Council Resolution 1874 pointed out, “a culture of fraud and corruption is both rampant and institutionalized through a wide network of North Korean trade offices that work in with overseas diplomatic missions and criminal networks overseas in illicit trade and covert acquisitions.”[23] The United Nations lists three ports in the UAE, Malaysia, Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lichtenstein, Greece, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Mauritania, Thailand, and Singapore as being related to North Korean proliferation efforts.[24]

North Korea will find more buyers for its chemical weapons due to the proven effectiveness, as demonstrated recently in Douma. Pyongyang stands to make more cash to support its own WMD programs by resupplying Syria and additional sales to other states as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Should buyers come calling, North Korea’s Kim regime has demonstrated that it is ready, willing, and able to sell whatever the customer needs, ultimately profiting from the proliferation and bolstering of its own capabilities.

It should be noted that the U.S. tried to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons before. In September 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement on the “expeditious destruction of the Syria chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof,” leaving the world in anticipation as to whether implementation of that agreement would actually take place. Well, obviously, it did not. At the time, Secretary Kerry specifically mentioned in Congressional testimony that North Korea and Hezbollah, a state actor and non-state actor with a healthy weapons trade relationship, were targets of influence in the conduct of U.S. action.[25] Then, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel rightly pointed out that Hezbollah’s access to chemical weapons must be prevented.[26]

To stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons, it is important to go beyond signed agreements. The Syria-North Korea connection must be cut off to prevent further crimes against humanity. Any future summit between North Korea and the United States should address this issue directly.



[1]North Korea is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention.
[2]Only in terms of dosage per person, not in realistic dispersal capability.

[3]Roi Kais,North Korean officers join Assad's forces,” Ynetnews.com, June 3, 2013. URL: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4387732,00.html.

[4]Flickr.com, “North Korean officers visit a Tishreen military hospital in Damascus, Syria,” March 15, 2012. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom2/6984576857/meta/.
[5]Kim Il-sung, “우리나라의정세와몇가지군사과업에대하여(On A Few Tasks For Our Country’s Situation),” vol. 15 of Kim Il-sung’s Works(Pyongyang: Korean Workers’ Party Publishing Company, 1981).
[6]Kwon Yang-joo, 북한의대량살상무기(WMD) 개발관려– 관계조명(Focusing on Party-Military Relations Related to North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] Development ),” Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Weekly National Defense Forum, No.1460, April 29, 2013, pp.1-11.  
[7]Kim Pil-jae, “중국이북한-이란의핵개발돕고있다(China is Helping North Korean-Iran Nuclear Development),” NewDailyNewsFebruary 17, 2013. URL: http://www.newdaily.co.kr/news/article.html?no=142889.
[8]Mok Yong-jae, “Puk, Hanulkil Mukisuchul, Nodongdang 99 Hosil Chudo (North Korea Exports Weapons by Air, Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 Leads),” Daily NK, December 17, 2009. URL: http://www.dailynk.com/korean/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=79465.

[9]Korea Times, “Source: Hundreds of NK nuclear and missile experts working in Iran,” November 13, 2011. URL: 

http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/11/113_98613.html.See also Kyunghyang Shinmun, “언론, “시리아핵시설참여북한군10사망(Japan Sources, Ten North Korean Soldiers Participating at the Syrian Nuclear Facility Die),” April 28, 2008. URL: http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=200804280930092&code=910303.
[10]Michelle NicholsNorth Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report,” Yahoo.comAugust22, 2017. URL:https://www.yahoo.com/news/north-korea-shipments-syria-chemical-arms-agency-intercepted-222725768.html.
[11]On January 2, 2015, KOMID was designated by the U.S. Treasury as an agent of the “North Korean government” pursuant to Executive Order 13687. Treasury also designated ten individuals, eight of whom were said to be representatives of KOMID. Two individuals, Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong, were listed as “KOMID officials operating in Syria.” U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Imposes Sanctions Against the Government of The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” January 2, 2015, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl9733.aspx
[12]Chogabje.com, “, ‘105 연구소화학무기연구(North Korea, 105thResearch Institute Conducts Chemical Weapons Research) ,” September 9, 2013. URL: http://chogabje.com/board/view.asp?C_IDX=52726&C_CC=AB.
[13]MK News, “화학무기비밀리연구개발하는따로있어…(Where Chemical Weapons Are Secretly Developed in North Korea…), September 5, 2013. URL: http://news.mk.co.kr/newsRead.php?year=2013&no=809872.
[14]Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, “Defense White Paper 2012,” http//www.mnd.go.kr/; p.35; see also Lee Min-yong, Understanding the North Korean Military(Seoul: Hwanggumal Publishing, 2004), pp.139-140 (in Korean).
[15]Kwon Yang-joo, The Comprehension of North Korean Military (Seoul: Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Press, 2010); p.244.
[16]Lee Min-ryong, 김정일체제의북한군대해부(Understanding The Kim Jong-il Regime’s North Korean Military) (Seoul: Golden Egg Publishing, 2004); p.139.
[17]Nocut News, 북한화학무기5천톤보유군사기지관련시설도28(North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons and 28 Support Facilities)," October 17, 2006. URL:  http://www.nocutnews.co.kr/show.asp?idx=341123.
[18]Mok Yong-jae, "화학무기공장은평안남도·자강도에밀집(North Korea Chemical Weapons Factories Are Concentrated in Pyongan South Province and Jagang Province)," Dalian News, September 6, 2013.  URL: http://www.dailian.co.kr/news/view/384143/?sc=naver.
[19]Lee Chun-kun and Kim Chong-son, 북한의과학기술수준및관심분야분석(Analysis of North Korea’s Science and Technology Standards and Related Areas) (Seo ul: Ministry of Unification, 2009).
[20]Bruce Bechtol, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il(Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2013).

[21]Claudia Rosett, “Syria’s Pals at the Chemical Weapons Convention,” National Review Online, September 13, 2013. URL:  http://www.nationalreview.com/article/358475/syrias-pals-chemical-weapons-convention-claudia-rosett; see also Claudia Rosett,The UN’s colossal failure to stop Syria’s chemical weapons,” thehill.com, April 11, 2018. URL: 
http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/382723-the-uns-colossal-failure-to-stop-syrias-chemical-weapons.

[22]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/how-north-korea-built-its-nuclear-program/274830/.

[23]David J. Birch and others, Final Report to the United Nations Security Councl by Panel of Experets Pursuant to Resolution 1874 (2009),United Nations, 2010.

[24]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/how-north-korea-built-its-nuclear-program/274830/.

[25]David Martosko, “Kerry And Hagel Refuse To Rule Out Sending Troops In To Syria As They Tell The Senate That The World's Dictators Are 'Listening For Our Silence’,”DailyMailOnline, September 3, 2013. URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2410394/Kerry-Hagel-warn-worlds-dictators-listening-silence--REFUSE-rule-sending-troops-in.html.

[26]Josh Rogin, “Hagel: America Can’t Let Hezbollah Get Chemical Weapons,” Daily Beast, September 3, 2013. URL: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/03/hagel-america-can-t-let-hezbollah-get-chemical-weapons.html.

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