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Syria Propose Airline Agreement With North Korea

According to an article published by NKNews.com, “Damascus proposed a proportional allotment agreement between North Korean state airline Air Koryo and Syrian Air during a Syrian-DPRK Joint Economic Committee meeting in June.  The arrangement will allow for the block booking of an allotment of seats or space on either airline, which can be reserved for the regular transfer of individuals or cargo. Syria’s Ministry of Aviation have already signed the agreement and is awaiting an official response from North Korea.

“Things take time in Korea, as you know, there are higher points of reference needed,” Lubaneh Mshaweh, the head of Syrian-DPRK Joint Economic Committee told NK News. Mshaweh added that the agreement was originally proposed by North Korea.  The agreement could facilitate tourism or trade via chartered flights between the countries, or through the transshipment of cargo at international airports.  However, considering existing military cooperation between the two countries, this may also include trade of significant proliferation concern.

While a proportional allotment agreement is not uncommon or of itself a breach of sanctions, it does carry with it the potential for North Korea and Syria to transfer military equipment or personnel directly by airfreight.  The fact that Syria and North Korea have a well-documented history in the trade of military equipment and personnel suggests there is potential the proposed agreement could be used for illicit activity.

The Panel of Experts (PoE) on North Korean sanctions said in their 2013 report that “the Syrian Arab Republic is involved in one-third of all weapons of mass destruction and arms-related incidents of non-compliance investigated by the Panel.”  “These incidents prove the persistence of close ties between the two countries, which continue to be a matter of serious concern,” the report added.

North Korean planes traveling to the Middle East and Syria have previously been denied entry into national airspace, blocking their route, due to these concerns.  In 2008 a North Korean plane en route to Syria was denied entry into Kazakhstani airspace and, similarly, in 2012 aviation authorities in Iraq refused access to a North Korean plane flying to Syria due to suspicions that it was carrying weapons.

The majority of planes from North Korea’s and Syria’s fleets do not have the range to fly directly from Pyongyang to Damascus or vice versa, and planes with block bookings on them will likely have to stop to refuel in other countries.  These refueling, or transit stops, have also become red flags for those monitoring North Korea’s illicit activities.

Wikileaks cables in 2008 revealed that the U.S. government was tracking a flight from Pyongyang en route to Damascus. The flight was postponed and subsequently rescheduled to include a transit stop in Tehran.  “Many of the charter flights of proliferation concern that we know of have stopped in Iran en route to Damascus,” Andrea Berger, a non-proliferation research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News.  Wikileaks cables revealed further U.S. concerns that Air Koryo would continue the pattern of chartering flights to allied countries such as Syria or Iran, via a third destination.The PoE also recognized the risk chartered flights pose.  “Careful scrutiny should be applied to all non-scheduled flights to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in particular if undertaken by military-type transport aircraft,” the 2013 report said.

However, tracking North Korean planes has proven extremely difficult in the past and continues to be a matter of serious concern.  “Monitoring, let alone preventing, illicit shipments by air is surprisingly difficult. This is a weak link in anti-terrorist efforts, too,” an expert familiar with North Korea sanctions told NK News.

Read the full article on NKNEWS.org (link)

Royce Christyn
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