Besides Russia (Syria’s most powerful ally) and Iran, President Bashar al-Asaad remains close ties with a distant backer—North Korea. The alliance traces back to the early 1970s, when North Korea sent advisers and equipment to aid Syria’s sneak attack against Israel during the Yom Kippur War. After Syria and Egypt lost, Pyongyang managed to send a group of artisans to construct a commemorative museum in Cairo. Pyongyang’s motives abroad have shifted throughout the years—early on the regime was eager to spread its juche ideology, but slowly it is transitioning to selling weapons and equipment to salvage its moribund economy. Syria is the only Mediterranean country that has diplomatic relations with North Korea without formally recognizing South Korea.
In 2007, Israel launched Operation Orchid against Syria—an air strike that destroyed an undeclared nuclear reactor believed to have been built by North Korea and funded by Iran. The alleged alliance involves controversial chemical weapons as well, which accounts for two of the four countries that possess chemical weapon stockpiles (The four being: U.S., Russia, Syria, and North Korea). In April, Turkey intercepted a North Korean shipment of arms, ammunition, and gas masks en route to Syria. However, most recently North Korea denied aiding the Syrian government in its fight against rebel forces.
On August 3rd, the day before President Rouhani’s swearing in, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and North Korean security officials agreed to continue their cooperation in nuclear and missile development. The agreement perhaps undermines the new president’s policy to improve relations with western nations, particularly continuing a nuclear program dialogue with the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany. While North Korean officials showed concern towards President Rouhani’s stance in regard to Western nations, Mohammad Ali Jafari (the head of IRGC) assured them that the IRGC is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rather than the President.
In addition to close ties in the fields of nuclear and missile development, Iran also supply petroleum to North Korea (Read more about it here.)
Pyongyang and Cairo recently signed a 2013-2015 “Working Plan for Cultural Cooperation.” The agreement was reached between the Egyptian Embassy in Pyongyang, and a North Korean delegation within the Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Cooperation between the two traces back to the 1970s—where North Korea aided both Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kipper War. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was also a keen supporter of friendly relations with North Korea.
As the U.S. cut military assistance, Egypt could be looking elsewhere for military support—particularly in ballistic missile developments. The new cultural plan does not explicitly entail military cooperation, rather fields such as higher education, art, public health, youth, sports, and mass media. (Egyptian company Orascom owns 75% of North Korea’s 3G networks “Korylink.”)
North Korea maintains amicable relations with these “high-profile” states, particularly worth noting due to their tensed relations with the U.S. and the rest of the western world. Is there a potential trend emerging among weak states to amalgamate, even if distance is a factor?