The then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad meets North Korea's Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang, in 1974. Photo: AFP

Pyongyang’s Korean People’s Army is variously known for being huge but stealthy, dangerous but decrepit, nuclear-armed but ill-fed. As the armed force of one of the world’s most isolated nations, one thing it is not known for is having global reach. While its special forces have operated as far afield as Burma, where they bombed the visiting South Korean cabinet in Yangon, in 1983, and have abducted civilians from Japanese islands, these operations were small-scale and (relatively) close to home.

However, a recent report that North Korea was building an underground military base in Syria brings up the question of where else Pyongyang’s military forces, and associated parties, such as scientists specializing in strategic materials and programs, might have been active.

The answers may be surprising.

It is widely known that from 1967 to 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Pyongyang sent fighter pilots to assist North Vietnam in its fight against South Vietnam and the United States. Their skills were significant: some of those pilots were victorious against US pilots flying more sophisticated aircraft.

Moreover, it is now known from Eastern bloc sources that North Korea also sent observers to North Vietnam to study the battle tactics and proficiency of South Korean troops fighting for South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973.

And there is more recent activity. A document originally prepared by the CIA in August 1984 and declassified on July 30, 2009 – when it was released in a lightly redacted form – details North Korea’s involvement elsewhere. The countries (and entities) include Benin, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guyana, Iran, Libya, Madagascar, Malta, Mozambique, Nicaragua, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Pakistan, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Somalia, Surinam, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, Upper Volta, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Most of the military assistance proffered came in the form of equipment, ranging from small boats and light arms and ammunition to anti-aircraft weapons, field artillery pieces, and multiple rocket launchers. Other forms of military assistance included aircraft spare parts, various types of military training, and assorted support equipment such as trucks.

Additionally, an unclassified version of a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report not widely disseminated upon its issuance in October 1991 confirms suspicions that, beginning in the 1970s, North Korea sent pilots to assist Libya. This was in addition to Pyongyang having pilots in Syria in 1967, in 1973, and again between 1975 and 1976.

Pyongyang’s involvement in building an underground military base in Syria is just one example of its ongoing efforts to gain hard currency through the sale of arms or via the proliferation of its missile and nuclear technologies

Even more recently, reports state UN scrutiny of North Korean military and security assistance to the African nations of Angola, Benin, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Pyongyang is believed to be using these countries to circumvent sanctions in its drive to earn hard currency via trading in arms – a trade that goes back as far as the 1970s.

North Korea’s military and weapons of mass destruction scientist have long had a significant presence in Syria.

For example, Pyongyang has been involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program since the 1990s, selling the country chemical weapons materials, manufacturing equipment, and other associated technology. In 2009, a number of shipments of such goods from North Korea, destined for Syria, were intercepted. Noteworthy is an incident at a Syrian chemical weapons factory in July 2007, when the warhead on a missile exploded, killing both North Korean and local workers. Recent use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons has also been linked to North Korea. And in 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium that was built by North Korea.

There are even reports that, amid the current Syrian maelstrom, North Korean advisors and ground troops engaged in combat operations in the country during 2013.

One of the most significant military alliances is that between the North and Iran. The two have long been exchanging information on ballistic missile development and nuclear technology. Pyongyang even invited the man behind Iran’s nuclear program to witness a North Korean nuclear detonation.

It is clear that North Korea is active in military affairs around the world and the latest revelation that Pyongyang is involved in building an underground military base in Syria is just one example of its ongoing efforts to gain hard currency through the sale of arms or via the proliferation of its missile and nuclear technologies.

That the West and its allies have been unable to halt transfers of North Korean weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries is a failure that threatens the safety and security not only of Northeast Asia, but of peoples and places around the world.

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