This undated photo released July 28 by North Korea's official news… (Korean News Service )
BEIJING -- North Korea tried to export gas masks to Syria this spring, presumably for use in the Middle East nation's chemical weapons program, but the shipment was intercepted by Turkey along with arms and ammunition, a Japanese newspaper reported Tuesday.
The Libya-flagged ship El Entisar (“Victory”) was stopped April 3 by Turkish authorities as it passed through the Dardanelles, the Sankei Shimbun reported. Acting on the tip from the United States, authorities searched the ship and seized 1,400 rifles and pistols and about 30,000 rounds of ammunition as well as the gas masks.
The captain of the vessel admitted that the shipment had come from North Korea, according to the newspaper, which said the plan was for the arms to be unloaded in Turkey and transported by land into Syria to support the government of President Bashar Assad.
The revelation comes amid international outrage over accusations that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against civilians suburbs of Damascus last week. Any connection between North Korea and the alleged attacks could further isolate North Korea.
U.N. sanctions imposed after North Korea conducted nuclear and missile tests prohibit international sales of the nation's weapons, once a major source of hard currency. Syria is also subject to sanctions.
"Gas masks and protective gear are considered weaponry because they are used for atomic, biological and chemical weapons. So if this equipment was sold by North Korea to Syria, on orders of the Syrian government, it shows that the Syrian government was contemplating the use of chemical weapons,’’ said Shin In-kyun, a South Korean military expert and head of the Korea Defense Nework.
This is not the first time that North Korea has been accused of supplying equipment related to chemical arms to Syria. In November 2009, Greece seized almost 14,000 suits that provide protection from such weapons on a North Korean ship they believed was headed to Syria. South Korean authorities also intercepted a North Korean shipment of protective gear on a vessel sailing near the South Korean port of Busan that year.
"There is a long-term relationship between North Korea and Syria, similar to the agreement with Iran, on nuclear and conventional weapons," said Park Syung-je, a military expert at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul. “I don’t see any signs that it has diminished.”
A Syrian delegation was reported to have visited Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, in late July. The Korean Central News Agency quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un saying the talks were aimed as “boasting bilateral relations” between their countries.
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Special correspondent Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.