North Korea tried to export ampules of reagents for chemical weapons to Syria in 2009, in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution banning arms shipments from the country, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The United Nations plans to launch an investigation into the violation soon, diplomatic sources said, representing a rare probe into the reclusive communist country's arms trade related to chemical weapons.
The case highlights the close relationship between North Korea and Syria in the development and production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), diplomatic observers said.
In November 2009, Greek authorities seized a container from a Liberia-registered freighter as it headed toward Syria. Inside the container they found wooden boxes stuffed with several types of ampules believed to be made of glass, each containing liquid or powdered reagents, the sources said.
These reagents are used to identify chemical substances that become airborne after the use of chemical weapons, the sources said. The reagents can be used in chemical weapons attacks and for defending against them, they added.
The Greek authorities also seized about 14,000 anti-chemical weapons suits from the vessel. The suits were the same type as those seized by South Korean authorities in September of the same year, which were determined to be designed for military use as they are extremely airtight, the sources said.
Observers say North Korea tried to build up their foreign currency reserves through the export of reagents and protective suits.
In September 2011, the Greek government reported the seizure of ampules and protective suits to the U.N. Security Council's Sanctions Committee as a violation of the council's resolution adopted in June 2009 that bans North Korea from exporting arms-related materials.
According to unpublicized U.N. data and the sources concerned, the committee's expert panel representing the council's five permanent members plus Japan and South Korea is looking into the possibility of conducting on-the-spot inspections in Greece.
North Korea and Syria are two of the six nations that have yet to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention that took effect in 1997. The convention prohibits the development, production and possession of chemical weapons.
According to estimates by South Korea's National Defense Ministry, North Korea possesses 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard and sarin gases. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. private organization, considers Pyongyang's stockpile the third-largest following the United States and Russia.
North Korea and Syria are thought to be cooperating in the development of other WMDs, such as missiles and nuclear arms. The diplomatic sources said the latest case is the tip of the iceberg in their bilateral cooperation in WMD production.
Kim Jong Un, who recently succeeded his father Kim Jong Il as the leader of North Korea, has maintained the country's military-first policy. Pyongyang's close relations with Damascus are thus likely to continue in the years to come, some analysts said.