- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
In 1973, to aid in a surprise attack on Israel, North Korea reportedly sent hundreds of troops to Syria. The conflict, which became known as the Yom Kippur War, was an embarrassing defeat for Syria — Israeli troops made it within dozens of miles of Damascus. Like so many dictatorships, the Syrian government tried to fashion a triumph out of a loss. On the outskirts of Damascus, the October War Panorama museum, a castle-like structure built with the help of North Koreans, memorializes Syria’s "victory" over Israel.
If there’s anywhere that shares Syria’s sense of insecurity right now, it’s North Korea, a country that appears to count Syria as one of its closest allies. KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency, slathers praise on Syria, and Kim Jong Un recently met with a high-ranking Syrian delegation (to be fair, he also recently met with Dennis Rodman, and looked happier with the former basketball player than with Bashar al-Assad’s envoys).
While it’s difficult to say how deep their ties run, the two countries are surprisingly suitable partners. Both hate the United States and Israel — Syria’s enmity for its neighbor is well-known; North Korea views Israel as a running dog of the United States and a mortal enemy of its friends Syria and Palestine. (The Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel allegedly destroyed in 2007 was built with help from North Korea.)
North Korea, which over the centuries has been overrun by larger nations like Japan and the United States, views friendly nations able to overwhelm it — countries like China, Russia, and even Pakistan — with added suspicion. Syria is more of an equal: Both countries have roughly 20 to 25 million people, and pre-civil war Syria ran a police state nearly as effective as North Korea’s. Ominously, the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported that Turkey recently intercepted gas masks en route to Syria from North Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The bilateral ties extend beyond geopolitics into the realm of culture: what could be called, only semi-facetiously, North Korean soft power. North Korea has exported doctors, construction workers, and artists to Syria and at least half a dozen other countries. It has a surprisingly decent graphic design industry, and fosters a talented group of artists who have created works of social realism for those countries — often massive paintings showing rosy-cheeked babies, steel mills, and citizens enlivened by their leaders’ smile.
Perhaps the best place to observe these links between Syria and North Korea is the October War Panorama museum — or at least it was when I visited in October 2009, when Syria was a more welcoming tourist destination. (I’m not sure if it’s still open, but it was recently in the news after Syrian activists claimed rockets carrying chemical weapons had been fired from the site.)
The two most memorable parts of the museum are a mural, which shows a majestic Hafez al-Assad flanked by ecstatic Syrians gravitating toward the former Syrian president, and a 360-degree panorama, which could be described as a Stalinist merry-go-round. As I sat on a platform in the middle of the panorama, it began to move, telling through tiny figurines and poorly designed army vehicles the story of Syrians wresting territory from Israeli soldiers circa 1973.
What makes the mural and the panorama particularly noteworthy is that they are copied from the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, a creaky building that showcases artifacts from North Korea’s "victory" over the United States during the Korean War. In the Pyongyang painting, former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung replaces Hafez al-Assad, his delighted citizens replace the ecstatic Syrians, and defeated Korean war-era Americans replace dying Israelis. North Korean artists created all the installations, and they look like they’re drawn from the same paint-by-number kit.
So why did the Assads choose North Koreans to design their memorial? Maybe national mythologies are difficult to create, and Hafez al-Assad turned to the best in the business. More likely, North Koreans were just the cheapest option.