North Korea has been shipping supplies to the Syrian government that could be used to make chemical weapons, say United Nations investigators.
The revelations, in a confidential 200-page long report seen by the New York Times, comes as the US and other countries have accused Syria of using chemical weapons on its own civilians, including a suspected chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta in the past few days.
The report indicates there have been major flaws in international efforts to isolate both countries, and the new evidence could dampen efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table following a diplomatic détente at the South Korean Winter Olympics.
The items provided by North Korea reportedly included acid-resistant tiles, valves and thermometers. Investigators also detailed sightings of North Korean technicians working at chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria.
The report appears to confirm long-standing fears that North Korea may be funding its own weapons of mass destruction programme by trading its technological expertise with hostile third parties.
It also supports suspicions since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 that President Bashar al-Assad has been assisted by the North Korean regime.
The possible chemical weapons components were part of at least 40 previously unreported shipments by North Korea to Syria between 2012 and 2017 of prohibited ballistic missile parts and materials that could be used either for civilian or military purposes.
The UN declined to comment on the report, which was written by a panel of eight experts tasked with checking North Korea’s compliance with sanctions.
It may never be publicly released, but a spokesperson stressed that the “overarching message is that all member states have a duty and responsibility to abide by the sanctions that are in place.”
Experts who reviewed the document for the Times described it as the most detailed account to date of efforts to circumvent sanctions intended to curb the military powers of both countries.
But they concluded that it did not prove definitively that there was current, continuing collaboration between North Korea and Syria on chemical weapons.
Hopes have been rising on the Korean peninsula that talks between South and North Korea over the Olympic Games could be expanded to include the US and eventually lead to a breakthrough over Pyongyang’s nuclear and weapons programme.
On Tuesday, senior US diplomat, Joseph Yun, who will retire later this week, told South Korean newswire Yonhap that he remained “very hopeful” about the prospect of talks.