North Korean leader’s most frequent pen pal has been Syria’s Bashar al Assad in the first half of 2021. Here's why

North Korea, an Asian country isolated from the world, and Syria, a war-torn country in the Middle East, may not seem to have a lot in common at first glance. But their leaders, Kim Jong Un and Bashar al Assad, in fact, have similar backgrounds and shared interests that bring them together.

Both countries’ leaders, Assad and Kim Jong Un, have inherited power from their fathers, and both have had troubles in finding international partners, which has possibly brought them closer. 

Regular correspondence

Syria’s Assad has been the most frequent pen pal of North Korea’s Kim in the first half of 2021, according to Seoul-based NK News, citing North Korean state media. The two leaders have reportedly exchanged letters 12 times in this period -- almost the same amount of letters were exchanged in 2020.

Kim’s latest one included a note of congratulations after the Syrian regime leader won an election in the country that was called a “sham vote” by the United Nations and much of the world.

There are only a handful of foreign diplomats in Pyongyang due to Covid-19, while most of the foreign embassies have been shut down in Syria since the beginning of the war, and only few countries admit to having diplomatic relations with the regime -- mostly at charge d’affaires level.

A decades old partnership

At the advent of the Syrian war in 2011, North Korea (DPRK) declared support to Assad but denied the reports about North Korea supplying chemical weapons to beef up the Syrian regime.

In 2018, an attack killed 43 people in the former-rebel held town Douma that the Syrian regime was trying to recapture at the time. The US insists that Assad's regime was behind the attack. After a year-long probe, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed in 2019 that the regime had indeed used chlorine, an internationally banned chemical weapon, while targeting the town. 

In the same year, the UN linked North Korea to Syria’s Chemical Weapons program. Inspecting leaked documents, it said North Korea provided supplies to the Syrian regime that could be used in chemical weapons, a UN report said. Syria also received ballistic missile systems from North Korea. The regime in Syria reportedly used front companies to pay for the equipment. 

That is because both countries are widely sanctioned. The UN Security Council has been sanctioning the DPRK since 2016 in an attempt to prevent the country’s effort to develop nuclear weapons. The US and some other countries also impose unilateral sanctions against the Asian state.

The US designated Syria as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in December 1979 and the country's status hasn't changed ever since. But alongside The European Council, Washington has begun intensely pursuing calibrated sanctions when the war began more than 10 years ago. The aim was to pressure the regime leader to accept a democratic political settlement and end the “repression” of civilians.

Both the reports suggest North Korea’s support to the Syrian regime isn’t limited to shipping chemical weapon supplies. In 2016, a Syrian opposition coalition claimed that two militia units from North Korea were fighting for the Syrian regime forces.

However, the duo’s ties date back to much earlier than the Syrian war. During the Cold War, in 1967, the DPRK started sending pilots to Syria during the Arab-Israeli war.

In the 80s, former North Korean leader Kim Jong II approved training Syrian military officers in the DPRK’s Kim Il Sung Military University -- an agreement that didn’t stop.

Syria dedicated a park in Damascus to Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, in late 2015.