THE FACT that Israel bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor built with the help of North Korea was widely if unofficially reported within days of the strike last September. But the Bush administration's decision to go public with the considerable evidence it had about the reactor has placed that extraordinary event in a new political context. The disclosure, which administration officials said they initially withheld because of fears of triggering hostilities between Israel and Syria, was nevertheless overdue. As a member of the U.N. Security Council, the United States is obligated to report evidence that other states are violating international law against nuclear proliferation.
Experts pointed out that the U.S. disclosures, including pictures from inside the reactor, did not include evidence that Syria had obtained fuel or built the reprocessing facility that would be needed to convert plutonium from the reactor into bomb material. But Syria's failure to report the reactor's existence to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as required by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and its quick demolition and burial of the reactor's remains after the attack require explanation -- and in its absence, sanction. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei will be tested by the investigation he announced on Friday. Already he has politicized his position by trying to thwart Western pressure on Iran about its illegal nuclear program. Will Mr. ElBaradei hold Damascus accountable for its blatant violation of international law, or will he simply blame Israel and the United States? So far he has chosen the latter course -- and thereby given cover to the many governments who will want to do the same.
That answers are needed, too, from North Korea is an immense understatement. The regime of Kim Jong Il pledged to disclose all of its nuclear programs as one of the opening steps of a disarmament process. Now we know that North Korean technicians were continuing to work on the Syrian reactor after Pyongyang made its commitment in February 2007. Yet the Kim regime still refuses to report on its help to Syria. According to a deal under discussion with the Bush administration, it would merely "acknowledge" -- and then only in private -- U.S. "concerns" about proliferation.
Bush administration officials say they hope the disclosure of evidence about the reactor will prompt North Korea to be more forthcoming. They also acknowledge that they were under pressure from Congress to act before removing sanctions on Pyongyang as part of the new agreement. The question for the administration remains why it would grant further concessions to North Korea before Pyongyang comes clean about its proliferation to Syria as well as any other deals it may have made. The State Department argues that such an "accounting" will come through a verification process.
Officials also say that by sustaining the "six-party" diplomacy, they are gradually opening a totalitarian state to change. Still, the process won't work unless North Korea truly intends to disarm, rather than merely extort aid and political favors from the West. What's needed is a diplomatic strategy that forces Mr. Kim to choose between his weapons and engagement with the outside world. That's why dropping the requirement for a full disclosure by Pyongyang is risky -- it encourages the regime to believe it can avoid that decision.