As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un prepare for the first ever summit between the heads of their respective countries, it appears that, at least for now, the brinkmanship and threats we have seen in the recent past are at an end. Regardless of the fate of the summit, however, the United States and its allies will be forced to deal with North Korea’s weapons programs, which now threaten not only U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan but potentially the continental United States itself.
International attention in recent years has understandably centered on Pyongyang’s advances in nuclear weapons technology and the question of whether North Korea can be convinced to denuclearize. This focus, however, has tended to obscure the fact that North Korea’s military development serves two purposes. The first is the ability to intimidate and threaten both its neighbors in the region and the United States. The second, less well-known purpose is to proliferate weapons—conventional, unconventional, and weapons of mass destruction—to desperate and unstable regions around the world in exchange for hard currency.
For decades, North Korea has proliferated weapons, including conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and chemical agents, to states such as Iran and Syria (and by extension to their nonstate proxies), helping them to evade international sanctions and providing them with the necessary technical and military assistance to develop their own weapons programs.
THE SYRIAN CONNECTION
Perhaps the most visible instance of North Korean proliferation can be seen in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, largely financed by his patrons in Tehran, has purchased and deployed North Korean weapons against his own people throughout the course of the country’s seven-year civil war.
North Korean–Syrian military relations go back to the 1960s, when both countries were part of the Soviet sphere of influence. North Korean pilots assisted the Syrian air force against Israel in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and during the
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