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A tale of two dictators
02:57 - Source: CNN

Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un: A tale of two dictators

split kim jong un bashar al-assad
A tale of two dictators
02:57 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Both leaders inherited their positions from their fathers

North Korea and Syria have enjoyed decades of friendly relations

CNN  — 

Since taking office the Trump Administration has found itself in confrontation with two dictators: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Though they rule vastly different countries on opposite sides of the world, their regimes share some striking similarities.

Family business

The leaders of Syria and North Korea both inherited their positions from their fathers: Hafez al-Assad and Kim Jong Il. Their family dynasties have ruled countries of roughly similar size and population for decades, running police states that use brute force to crush dissent.

Dr. Leonid Petrov, Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, notes that while Syria and North Korea are not ideologically aligned, both have “hereditary dynastical lines which control their respective countries with fear and repression.”

An undated photo shows former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad seated with his wife, Anisa. Behind them from left to right are children Maher, Bashar, Basel, Majd and Bushra.

Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 in a bloodless coup by military leaders, and for 29 years he dominated Syrian life and politics.

Following the death of his first-born son in a car accident, Hafez groomed his second son, Bashar al-Assad, to be his heir apparent. Bashar took over in 2000 after Hafez’s death.

The North Korean dictatorial dynasty goes back a little further than Syria’s. With the help of the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the Kim dynasty also known as “The Eternal President,” became the first premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948.

Kim passed on the mantle to his son Kim Jong Il, who became Supreme Leader after his father’s death from a heart attack in 1994. North Korea’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un, is the youngest son of Kim Jong Il.

The Hermit Kingdom has been defined and shaped by a cult of personality surrounding its ruling family. Tens of thousands of memorials and statues of the Kim dynasty are proudly displayed across the secretive country.

Unlike North Korea, which has been considered a pariah state since the Korean War, the Syrian government enjoyed diplomatic and political relations with Western countries.

Those ties have come under immense pressure since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war more than six years ago. The ties between North Korea and Syria, however, have remained friendly for decades.

Pyongyang’s road to Damascus

Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez met with the founder of the North Korean regime, Kim Il Sung, in the 1970s. As client states of the Soviet Union, both countries developed military-to-military ties.

“The Syrian embassy existed in Pyongyang since 1970, since the Ba’ath party took power in Syria, and also North Korea helped the Syrian Republic Army to develop certain aircraft and missile systems,” says Australian National University’s Petrov.

For years, North Korea has been suspected of having provided Syria with advanced Scud missiles and the technology to produce them.

In 2007, Israel launched an airstrike on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria believed to have been developed with North Korean aid.

These diplomatic relations have endured to this day. And their governments have a history of sending each other messages of solidarity and support.

In April 2017, following a suspected Syrian chemical attack on civilians, Kim sent Assad a congratulatory message to mark the founding anniversary of Syria’s ruling party.

“The Syrian government and people are reliably defending the independence and security of the country, resolutely smashing the acts of aggression of all the hostile forces and meeting their challenges under your correct leadership,” the message said, according to North Korean state news agency KCNA.

The agency then reported that Assad had replied, expressing thanks to Kim “for sending kind congratulations on the national day of Syria.”

It said Assad “sincerely wished him good health and happiness and the Korean people greater progress and development,” KCNA reported.

In 2015, the Syrian government named a park in Damascus after Kim Il Sung. At the park’s inauguration, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister called the North Korean founder “a historic ruler and leader, famous for his struggle to liberate and build his country.”

Young women hold a North Korean flag during a ceremony to name a park in Damascus after Kim Il-sung, August 31, 2015.

Super power patrons

In addition to benefiting from support for each other, Syria and North Korea also depend heavily on the patronage of much larger allies. Syria gets weapons and direct military support from Russia, while North Korea depends on China for more than 80% of its international trade.

But both are most aligned in their confrontation with the US. Syria’s state news agency has even referred to the US as a “common adversary” of Syria and North Korea.

Shea Cotton, Research Associate from James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, believes their mutual pariah status could push the two countries closer together.

“They are both fairly isolated countries and both have stuff that the other can deliver. North Korea desperately needs hard currency and Syria desperately needs weapons,” he said.

US pressure

The two pariah nations quickly became a target of US President Donald Trump.

His administration is trying to end Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and North Korea’s active nuclear weapons program by trying to persuade Moscow and Beijing to abandon Syria and North Korea, leading international efforts to isolate these regimes through sanctions, and threatening the use of military action.

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But both Pyongyang and Damascus remain defiant.

Kim Jong Un’s regime continues to threaten regular missile tests and defends its nuclear weapons program – though both are banned under UN Security Council resolutions.

Meanwhile, despite a grinding conflict that has killed more than 400,000 Syrians and left nearly half of the population displaced, Bashar al-Assad still clings to power while denying accusations of chemical weapons use and systematic human rights abuses.

This story was first published in April 2017 and has been updated.