By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Reports that North Korea may be assisting Syria with a possible nuclear program will not derail efforts to implement a deal to end North Korea's nuclear programs, the chief U.S. negotiator said yesterday, arguing that the reports emphasized the need to complete the agreement.
U.S. sources reported this week that Israel had recently provided the United States with evidence -- known by the code name "Orchard" -- that North Korea has been cooperating with Syria on a nuclear facility. But many outside nuclear experts have expressed skepticism that Syria, which has mostly focused on chemical and biological weapons, would be conducting nuclear trade with North Korea.
"The reason we have the six-party process, and the reason we have put together a number of pretty serious countries in this process, is to make sure that the North Koreans get out of the nuclear business," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill told reporters yesterday, in advance of a new round of talks next week in Beijing. "At the end of all this, we would expect to have a pretty clear idea of, you know, whether they have engaged in proliferation in other countries."
To the dismay of conservative critics, the Bush administration has pressed ahead with a deal that calls for North Korea to disclose all of its nuclear activities by the end of the year. Some have argued the administration is being snookered by Pyongyang to give up concessions without learning the full extent of its activities.
The White House and the State Department generally have declined to either confirm or deny reports of the Syria-North Korea link, but one top official yesterday seemed to fan the flames. Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, told the Associated Press yesterday in Rome that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment. "There are indicators that they do have something going on there," he said.
State Department officials declined to comment on Semmel's remarks.
Meanwhile, a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East, who has interviewed Israeli participants in a mysterious raid over Syria last week, reported that the attack appears to have been linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement.
The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources, said the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility that was labeled an agricultural research center on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. Israel has kept a close eye on the facility, believing that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.
The expert said it is not clear what the ship was carrying, but the emerging consensus in Israel was that it delivered nuclear equipment. The ship arrived Sept. 3 in the Syrian port of Tartus; the attack occurred Sept. 6 under such strict operational security that the pilots flying air cover for the attack aircraft did not know details of the mission. The pilots who conducted the attack were briefed only after they were in the air, he said.
Israel has imposed heavy censorship on reporters regarding the raid, so few details have leaked. The expert said that Israel appeared to have learned a lesson from its experience in destroying the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq -- that bragging about an operation only makes it easier for the world to condemn it.
Adding to the mystery, Syria has made only muted protests about the raid, and North Korea, which rarely comments on international matters, swiftly condemned it.
Bruce Reidel, a former intelligence official at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said, "It was a substantial Israeli operation, but I can't get a good fix on whether the target was a nuclear thing." He said there was "a great deal of skepticism that there's any nuclear angle here" and instead the facility could have been related to chemical or biological weapons.
But other sources who have been monitoring the Middle East said the attack was likely to be against a transit point for Iranian weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.