Is North Korea Selling Nukes to Syria?


North Korea may be cooperating with Syria on some sort of nuclear facility in Syria, according to new intelligence the United States has gathered over the past six months, sources said. The evidence, said to come primarily from Israel, includes dramatic satellite imagery that led some U.S. officials to believe that the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons.

The new information, particularly images received in the past 30 days, has been restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of it or uncertain of its significance, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.   [Washington Post, Glenn Kessler]

Calling all diggers.

Original Post:

If so,  this is  the biggest North Korea story of the decade (ht to Richardson).  The story is hidden in the middle of a New York Times story covering last week’s fracas between Israel and Syria, something that would otherwise be an ordinary page 15 story.  But this time, along with conducting air strikes on unspecified targets, Israel was overflying Syrian territory with reconnaissance aircraft:

One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.

“The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left,” the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.  [N.Y. Times, Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper]

This report raises some extremely grave questions without doing much to answer them.  Can we verify  the Israelis’ suspicions  to a reasonable degree of probability?  How certain are we that North Korea is only selling nuclear “materials,” and  at what stage of refinement,  enrichment, or reprocessing are those materials?   I already have  one grave doubt, although it isn’t dispositive to the concern:  the words, “selling … what little they have left.”  I cannot  believe that  North Korea would permanently give up all of its nuclear weapons or materials under any circumstance except  the overthrow of Kim Jong Il’s regime.  I can believe they’re selling off excess materials that could prove cumbersome in the event of more robust inspections that move beyond the immediate vicinity of Yongbyon, the box within which they’ve been kept so far.

Depending on those answers, the implications are tectonic.   The first of these is  a perfect  illustration of why every agreement North Korea signs  should  come  stamped with the following prominent disclaimers:




This  would be a deal breaker for Agreed Framework 2.0 and Agreed Framework 2.1, so the State Department’s less principled personalities have an incentive to disbelieve the story, and to discourage everyone else from believing it.  In circumstances like those, legitimate questions about this report will be especially difficult to sort out from illegitimate ones, and  if this story gets legs in our current political climate, count on plenty of addlebrained conspiracy theories to fog up the image. 

Second,  this would be  a great leap over  The Red Line,  as articulated by one of State’s more dovish alumni, Jack Pritchard. 

Third,  a North Korean discount sale on nuclear material (or  weapons?)  would make the decision not to impose a blockade on North Korea irresponsible, although there are good  reasons (read on) to impose it as softly as circumstances permit.

Fourth, treating this report with the importance it merits risks some  obvious political consequences (see addlebrained theories, above).  It tests a public grown weary — though mostly,  of discomforts borne by other people — at a time when  congressional support for  President Bush’s Iraq policy seems to be gradually regaining some of its rigidity. 

It could also favor left-wing candidates in South Korea’s upcoming election.  Given  what we’ve learned about  South Korean apathy about contributing to terrorist threats to Americans, South Koreans would probably vote for the politician least likely to cooperate with the United States in dealing with this threat.  There’s little question that Roh would think nothing of the security of the United States and exclusively of domestic politics.  And although I’ve long believed that we’ve mostly failed to use our considerable leverage to control South Korean policies that threaten our own security, there would be great benefits in having South Korea as an ally again, even if  only to a limited  degree.