Assad-Kim Meeting Puts Spotlight on Syria Nuclear Program

June 4, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018

News Analysis

Syrian President Bashar Assad is planning to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, as North Korea takes its initial steps to improve relations with the United States.

Assad allegedly stated, “I am going to visit the DPRK and meet HE Kim Jong Un.” Assad received credentials from North Korean Ambassador to Syria Mun Jong Nam on May 30, according to KCNA Watch, which republishes stories from North Korean state media.

The timing of the meeting is significant. Assad received his credentials just two days before Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean envoy and close confidant of Kim Jong Un, met with Trump chief of staff John Kelly at the White House on June 1.

It also comes just ahead of the planned June 12 summit in Singapore, where Kim is expected to meet with Trump.

In the backdrop are Kim’s announcements, under pressure from Trump, that he will abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and will reunite with South Korea.

Also in the backdrop are weapons deals Assad has with North Korea, and the Trump administration’s military strikes on Syrian military facilities on April 13, after Assad used chemical weapons on civilians in Damascus.

North Korea has in the past provided Syria with missile technicians and with materials for its ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs.

While the timing and chain of events suggest Assad has his own interests in influencing items on the negotiating table, it does not appear on the surface that Assad will attempt to dissuade Kim Jong Un from negotiating with Trump.

So far, Assad’s surface messaging aligns with similar messages sent from Russia to North Korea.

According to the KCNA Watch article, Assad said he welcomes the “remarkable events in the Korean Peninsula brought about recently by the outstanding political caliber and wise leadership of HE Kim Jong Un.”

“I am sure that he will achieve the final victory and realize the reunification of Korea without fail,” Assad said.

Given Russia’s support of Syria, it’s unlikely that Assad’s stance will deviate from that of Russia, which similarly sent a delegation to North Korea on June 1 to meet with Kim.

According to North Korean state news outlet Rodong Sinmum, the delegation included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Vice Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Oleg Stepanov, and several other key officials. Lavrov said “Russia fully supports” North Korea’s stance on the upcoming summit with the United States and on its plans for denuclearization, “and wishes for good successes.”

Kim also said, according to the report, that North Korea’s plans for denuclearization “still remain unchanged and consistent and fixed.”

Another important factor in the meetings is that North Korea briefly renewed its hostile statements against the United States after Kim met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping. Trump quickly responded with a May 24 open letter in which he called off the planned summit, stating, “The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth.”

In response to Trump’s letter, Kim quickly folded and also put reunification with South Korea on the table.

The interests of Syria with North Korea are closely related to the interests of Russia and the CCP. Now that it appears Kim will not back off from his plans for reunification, denuclearization, and negotiation with the United States, it’s likely that the negotiations of Syria, Russia, and the CCP have switched toward maintaining whichever ties and forms of influence they can.

Under heavy sanctions from the United States and United Nations, North Korea previously relied on the CCP to keep it afloat, and it relied on its nuclear weapons program to stay relevant on the world stage. This reliance gave the countries that supported these programs—mainly Russia and China—deep influence over the North Korean regime.

North Korea maintained additional relevance by trading weapons technologies, including those for missiles and chemical weapons, with Syria and Iran. And with North Korea negotiating to build favorable relations with the United States, it’s unlikely to risk trade programs that would endanger these negotiations—a factor that Assad is likely aware of as he plans his meeting.

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