Foreign Affairs

Syria-North Korea Nuclear Nexus

President Bush is mum about Israel’s raid on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility possibly because the administration doesn’t want to scuttle the North Korean denuclearization talks.   If the facility was a reactor being built with the help of the North Koreans, the President would be in the same position as his predecessor:  having fallen for North Korean promises that weren’t worth the breath with which they were spoken.  

Is the appearance of success in the Six Party Talks more important to the United States than the reality of Mideast nuclear prolferation?  Apparently so.

On September 6, Israel launched F-16I fighters to attack a massive concrete building inside Syria, 90 miles north of the Iraq border.  Intelligence officials say they have watched the structure being built since 2001 and according to the Washington Post Israeli fighters struck three days after a North Korean freighter off loaded suspicious cargo at a Syrian port that was then transferred to the raid site.

Media reports indicate Israel had incontrovertible evidence – radioactive soil samples from the site – to prove Syria was pursuing a secretive nuclear program.  Further, it’s significant that Mideast governments have been mute about the Israeli provocation except for Syrian President Bashir Assad who tepidly promised to retaliate in a manner and time of his choosing.

Post-attack satellite images of the targeted facility show that the Syrians quickly razed the site ostensibly to cover up the contents hidden inside.  

Some experts have long wondered about Syria’s nuclear ambitions.  In 2003, then US assistant secretary of state John Bolton said, “There was activity in Syria that I felt was evidence that they were trying to develop a nuclear weapon.”  Recently, Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary for nuclear nonproliferation policy admitted, “Syria was on the US nuclear watch list.”

Soon after the September strike, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested the Syrian building could have housed a reactor like North Korea’s Yongbyon plutonium facility.  Reacting to Syria’s razing the site, ISIS president David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector, said “It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence.”

It’s common knowledge in the Mideast that North Korea is a WMD proliferator.  Moshe Arens, Israel’s three time minister of defense, told this writer that North Korea has been “peddling technology” in the Mideast for “20 to 30 years.”  Uzi Arad, the former director of intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s ultra-secret intelligence agency, suggested that the bombed Syrian nuclear facility was “supplied by North Korea.”

Arguably, the North Koreans pose a serious strategic threat to the US directly and indirectly.  Last October, Pyongyang tested a nuclear device and has numerous long-range ballistic missiles that can reach the US homeland.  That explains why the US takes the communist state’s direct threat seriously and has moved quickly to establish a national missile defense.

That direct threat persuaded the Bush administration to launch the six-party denuclearization talks.  Those negotiations are now entering a very sensitive period and the administration wants to avoid stumbling short of the goal line.  That’s why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made the six-nation accord one of her top priorities.

On October 25, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary for Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs “I am pleased to report several positive and significant steps toward achieving our goal,” the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through the six-party process.

Hill stated that Pyongyang has taken steps to disable three nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.  These actions would effectively block North Korea’s “known ability to produce plutonium – a major step towards the goal of achieving the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Hill testified.

North Korea may be shuttering its reactors, but based on history it will rattle the neutrons again once the economic benefits associated with cooperation dry up.  More likely, Pyongyang is continuing its atomic program through proxies such as Syria.

John Bolton, who also served as the US ambassador to the UN, said that North Korea may be using Syria and Iran as “safe havens” for its nuclear activity.  In fact, Bolton said President Bush warned Pyongyang last year against transferring nuclear material to Syria.

Syria has long shown an interest in nuclear technology.  Even though it is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Damascus is interested in nuclear weapons albeit as a deterrence against Israel, which is believed to have a secret cache for end-time scenarios.  

In 1986, Syrian chief of staff General Hihmet al-Siabi suggested that Syria would strive to achieve strategic equality with Israel including nuclear parity.  About the same time of this announcement, Pakistan’s nuclear proliferator, A.Q. Khan, was making the rounds to Iran, Libya and North Korea.  No one has confirmed whether Syria was on Khan’s marketing plan, however.

Syria has a nuclear program overseen by the IAEA which includes a 30 kilowatt Chinese-built neutron source reactor.  Less public is who advises Syria’s nuclear enterprises.  The Scientific Research Institute in Damascus has allegedly taken in Iraqi scientists prior to the recent Gulf war and Secretary Semmel said “We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. … There may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment.”

Secretary Rice obliquely spoke to the possibly that North Korea passed nuclear technology to Syria.  On September 20th, Rice told Fox News that the US is working on preventing “…the world’s most dangerous people from having the world’s most dangerous weapons.”  Then she said “That’s why we have a Proliferation Security Initiative that tries to intercept dangerous cargos.”  Remember, three days after a North Korean cargo ship off loaded “cement” at a Syrian port, the Israeli fighters struck.

Israel’s raid must have been important enough to risk war.  Likely, only a target that posed a serious threat for the Jewish state would have justified the attack and the deafening silence across the region and in Washington suggest that no state has anything to gain by publicizing the facts.

Unless the US, Israeli and Syrian governments announce a contrary set of facts regarding the September attack, the evidence points to one conclusion: North Korea was supplying Syria with a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for a future Arab bomb.  

The Bush administration’s silence suggests desperation to keep the six-party talks on track.  Tagging North Korea with nuclear proliferation would politically scuttle both the talks and what Secretary Rice hopes will become one of Bush’s key foreign policy legacies.

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