North Korean militias are reportedly fighting alongside Bashar al Assad’s government forces in Syria.
"There are two groups [of militias] from North Korea," Asaad Zoubi, head of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee delegation to the peace talks in Geneva, told a briefing while listing the names of Assad’s foreign supporters.
It’s a well-known fact that North Korea has no friends except China. Even that friendship has gone through some turbulent times recently but the reclusive state, thanks to its egotistic despot Kim Jong-un, neither bestows any favors on nor receives any from the outside world.
So, how come North Korea is sending its soldiers thousands of miles away to fight in the Middle East? What does Pyongyang have at stake in Syria?
The answer is not really surprising, though it is a little less-documented in the mainstream media.
When it comes to the five-year civil war in Syria, the main stakeholders include countries like the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. North Korea’s involvement in the conflict might be unprecedented but it’s certainly not recent.
The hermit kingdom has long been an ally of Assad’s government. In March 2007, according to a New Yorker story by David Makovsky, Israeli agents raided the house of Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria’s nuclear program, in the wake of concerns that Syria might be developing nukes.
During the break-in, Mossad operatives found “dozens of pictures” from inside the purported nuclear facility, showing North Korean workers and a design that looked like a plutonium nuclear reactor.
The site was then allegedly destroyed by an Israeli air assault in 2007 dubbed Operation Orchard, though both sides never publicly acknowledged the attack.
Last year, German news website Spiegel Online reported the Syrian atomic weapon program had continued in a secret, underground location with help from Iran, a prominent Assad ally, and North Korea.
The friendship is duly reciprocated by Syria. In 2014, the Syrian government, despite being in the midst of a bloody conflict, managed to take time out to construct a park in capital city of Damascus, dedicating it to North Korea’s late founder Kim Il-sung.
The bizarre event also commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s independence from Japan's colonial rule. At the same time, officials from Syria’s ruling Baath Party and the North Korean Embassy met to emphasize the two countries' friendship and mutual support.
Jang Myong Ho, Pyongyang's ambassador to Damascus, called the Syrian civil war a “result of conspiracies fostered by the United States and its puppets” — a point that essentially clears out why a diplomatic pariah like North Korea would be interested in helping Assad, a dictator the United States has been trying to oust for years now.
There could be a far deeper national interest for Pyongyang, though, in Syria, besides the shared enmity towards “the United States and its puppets.” However, that aspect still remains a mystery.