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North Korean Mystery

At Hill's suggestion, the inspection team was broadened to include experts from China and Russia, the other nuclear powers represented in the talks, to spread the mission's responsibilities and risks. The inspectors' report cleared the way for the comprehensive package of requirements and incentives unveiled in Beijing.

In another bout of tacit cooperation that indicates this deal may be serious enough to last, the United States and North Korea have kept the agreement from being derailed by the mysterious airstrike that Israel launched against Syria on Sept. 6. Israel and Syria have both thrown unusual secrecy around the raid, refusing to disclose what was hit.

But highly classified U.S. intelligence reports say that the Israelis destroyed a nuclear-related facility and caused North Korean casualties at the site, which may have been intended to produce plutonium, according to a senior official with access to those reports. The Israelis have provided the United States with photographs, physical material and soil samples from the site -- taken both before and after the raid -- according to two independent sources.

A last gasp of North Korean international banditry before going straight on nuclear nonproliferation? A continuing confidence by Pyongyang that it can say one thing in public and do another covertly? Or simply the serendipity of one branch of a secretive government going about its skulduggery while others go a different way?

With North Korea, it is of course unclear. Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia -- a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma -- would be mere understatement if applied to Kim Jong Il's regime. That is why it is both good and important that Christopher Hill has put such emphasis on transparency in this agreement. Who knows? It may even catch on in Washington.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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