Yes, denuclearize North Korea – but don’t neglect other things

Over the past year, the North Korean nuclear threat has garnered much attention in the media and among policymakers in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. The “maximum pressure” policy of Washington and its allies has brought North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, and there is much anticipation regarding the forthcoming Trump- Kim meeting. While US President Donald Trump is working to craft a deal to denuclearize the North, the approaching summit affords an opportunity to address another persistent menace from Pyongyang: its longstanding export of chemical weapons and arms to the Syrian regime and other Middle Eastern states.

Shortly before the world witnessed the April 7 Syrian gas attack on opposition forces and civilians in Douma, Syria, the UN published a report on Pyongyang’s export of ballistic missile and chemical weapons components to Damascus in violation of UN sanctions. Tragically, this important report served as a precursor to the horrifying attack in Douma, demonstrating how North Korea’s connection to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program is part of a longer trend of the regime’s sale of weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional arms to Middle Eastern states.

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It is estimated that Pyongyang has exported to Damascus ballistic missile, conventional arms and dual-use items in dozens of shipments between 2012 and 2017 in exchange for hard currency. It is also reported that North Korean weapons advisers have been seen operating out of missile and chemical weapons sites inside Syria, providing their expertise and services to Syrian regime authorities.

According to reports, North Korean scientists may still be operating in Hama, Barzeh and Adra.

This is all part of a well-established security relationship between Pyongyang and Damascus that goes back nearly 60 years, with North Korean pilots flying missions for the Syrian Air Force during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 1970s, and North Korea assisting Syria with producing a nuclear power plant (which Israel thankfully destroyed in 2007) in addition to ballistic missiles.

Adding to US and Israeli concerns are North Korea’s decades-long alliance and lucrative trade in covert arms sales to a key regional US ally Egypt, as well as accounts of Pyongyang’s and Tehran’s military and ballistic missile technology cooperation.

Accounts of Pyongyang’s recent collaboration with Damascus are particularly worrying as the world has now seen Syrian President Bashar Assad use chemical weapons against his own people on multiple occasions, with some estimates that the regime has conducted over 200 chemical weapons attacks over the course of the seven- year Syrian civil war.

While President Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron were right to respond to Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Douma with their April 14 joint air operations against Syrian storage, military and research targets, more needs to be done.

During his upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim, President Trump will have many items to discuss, nuclear disarmament among them. As part of the discussions, Trump should demand the end of North Korea’s export of chemical, biological and conventional arms to Syria and other states in the Middle East in exchange for partial relief of economic sanctions.

Stopping Pyongyang’s deadly exports can help obstruct Assad’s ability to conduct chemical and biological weapons attacks on opposition forces and Syrian civilians.

It can also save lives in the broader Middle East. Both US-allied Sunni Arab Gulf states and Israel understand that they are targets of future aggression from Syria and its strategic ally and patron, Iran. Denying both Syria and Iran of the flow of arms from Pyongyang is a step toward safeguarding US regional partners.

Stopping Assad’s ability to use poison gas will also support the principle that chemical weapons cannot be accepted as a tool of warfare due to their indiscriminate nature.

Additionally, it will send a signal that the use of chlorine gas, despite not constituting a banned weapon under international law, must not be tolerated.

President Trump has an opportunity to follow through on recent US-led air-strikes against Syria and address the source of the ongoing Assad-chemical weapons peril.

Confronting Kim on his role of supplying Middle East actors with weapons of mass destruction and other arms would be a step in the right direction. For good measure, Trump should also make the North’s cessation of such exports as one of the preconditions for US involvement in the discussions.

Calling out and addressing Pyongyang’s role in weapons proliferation will add an extra layer of complication to the already multi-dimensional talks. Yet, Trump’s much-touted deal making skills should be able to incorporate this item into the overall negotiations. Doing so would hold promise for Middle East security and be a welcome development in the president’s laudable efforts to secure an historic deal with North Korea.

The author is associate director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.