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Kim cautiously congratulates Syrian president

Apr 19,2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivered a courtesy message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday congratulating him on the occasion of the country’s 72nd year of independence, saying he was “pleased” that the “friendly” Syrian government and people made “big achievements in the struggle to defend the country’s sovereignty and security.”

The message made no mention of the American-led strikes against Syria last weekend. U.S., British and French forces fired over 100 missiles at what they said were government facilities developing chemical weapons that were used on its own people.

In an article carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Tuesday, Kim was said to have written in the message that he “sincerely wished” Assad “good health and bigger successes in his work,” while extending “firm support and solidarity to the just cause of the Syrian government and people.”

North Korea is one of Syria’s few military allies, and it has not shied away from hailing Assad and his regime. When the United States punished Syria with targeted strikes for using chemical weapons on its civilians last year, the North’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the move as an “act of aggression” that can “never be tolerated.”

This time, however, Kim’s message included no mention of the United States. Pyongyang watchers suspect he is holding back on attacking the Donald Trump administration as the two leaders are set to meet for the first time in the coming months.

Previous North Korean statements on U.S. strikes have included some form of saber-rattling. The Foreign Ministry’s statement from April 11 last year, after the attack on Syria said it “taught a bitter lesson that no one should have an illusion about the imperialists, and one can defend oneself from the imperialist aggression only when one has one’s strength,” according to Rodong Sinmun, the state-run newspaper.

The ministry bragged that its nuclear arsenal was a “treasured sword of justice” for foiling “shameless high-handed and arbitrary practices and aggression moves” by the United States. It added that it would increase its military capabilities.

Kim’s message to Syria on Tuesday contained no such language, suggesting he is cautious about bringing up his nuclear arsenal ahead of talks with Trump that will likely include the topic of denuclearization.

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ security policy program, said the U.S. strike on Syria might have pressured North Korea because it shows the Trump administration’s military options are real and that it could launch a limited strike on North Korean facilities as it did in Syria.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]