The Orchard File: What are North Korea and Syria up to?

In the wake of the first reports about a reported Israeli air strike in  Syria, a  new crop  of reports  has considerably muddied facts that initially had seemed much clearer.  Journalistic politics is certainly a part of the problem.  Some of the reports are alarming, while others seek to downplay, and anyone who claims to be objective about war, diplomacy, and WMD today  is lying. 

You probably know where I stand on Agreed Framework 2.0 by now.  If the more alarming reports are true — that the target was a nuclear device or nuclear “material” supplied by North Korea —  it ought to be  game over.  If the less alarming reports are true — that the target was a facility where Syria and North Korea were doing cooperative nuclear research — it’s still a clear violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which still isn’t even a year old, which passed unanimously, and which is almost completely forgotten (but shouldn’t be). 

In many cases, the reports  point to  multiple locations or threats.  Bear in mind that in such cases, those theories aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.  The goal here is to simply relay and contrast the reports, and to let you find where they’re consistent, and where they aren’t.  In the end, the only firm conclusion I could draw was that the reports deserve to be taken seriously, and that if North Korea is at all sincere about its dealings with us, it will promptly and fully answer those questions.  Otherwise, we would simply be pretending that we can deal with people who keep cheating before the ink dries on their signatures. 

Clearly, proliferating during a process of denuclearization would violate the spirit of the agreement.  If it does not violate the letter of the agreement, it’s only because we  settled for a deal  too vague to say what it should have said very clearly.  These  are serious  questions.  It can’t be business as usual unless we get satisfactory answers.

Where Did It Happen?  

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.  [WaPo, Glenn Kessler]

Whatever the Israelis hit, they’re not saying, and they’re also imposing severe restrictions on their own media.  Two distinct areas of Syria [Google Map of Syria]  have attracted most of the speculation:  one in North-Central Syria near the Turkish border [Map] [Google Map], and another here, in Eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.  Global Security quotes Reuters as saying that residents near Tal al-Abaid, North-Central Syria, heard the sound of aircraft, and that a Syrian official said that the aircraft “dropped bombs on an empty area while our air defenses were firing heavily at them.”  There is no high-res Google Earth coverage of either area, unfortunately, but if you’re desperate for  a satellite imagery fix, GI Korea has done as good as job as  anyone could.   More here

What Happened? 

IT was just after midnight when the 69th Squadron of Israeli F15Is crossed the Syrian coast-line. On the ground, Syria’s formidable air defences went dead. An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way. At a rendezvous point on the ground, a Shaldag air force commando team was waiting to direct their laser beams at the target for the approaching jets. The team had arrived a day earlier, taking up position near a large underground depot. Soon the bunkers were in flames.  [Times of London]  

Despite the official silence, privately, the Israelis sound pretty happy with the results.

Israel has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter, but American television network CNN reported Tuesday that the Israeli government is “very happy with the successful operation.”

Senior CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, citing Middle Eastern and Washington sources, said aircraft and possibly even ground forces, who may have directed the planes to their target, took part in the operation. The attack left “a big hole in the desert,” the report said. CNN quoted U.S. government and military sources as saying they were “happy to have Israel convey to both Syria and Iran the message that they can get in and out and strike when necessary.”  [Haaretz, quoting CNN]

I don’t find it hard to believe that Syria was up to no good.  So just how much no-good were they up to?

Version  1:  Uranium Enrichment

The details of the claims are vague, but one source told FOX News in late August that the North Koreans had sold the Syrians a nuclear facility, most likely related to uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium is necessary both for nuclear power and nuclear weapons uses. The United States accuses Syria of assisting terrorist groups including Hezbollah.  A source said the case has been assigned the internal code name, “Orchard,” and the evidence was developed through Israeli channels, possibly with the assistance of U.S. aerial photography.

….

The former NSC official also said North Korea is “definitely still procuring [equipment] for its HEU [highly enriched uranium] program. It’s not as if they are viewing the talks as some kind of ‘time out’ on their HEU work.” This would be in direct contrast with efforts in the Six-Party talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  [Fox News]

If the uranium version is true, it’s time to retire David Albright, who showed up at this humble blog  a few months ago  to argue (but not debate) that North Korea had either no uranium enrichment program or a  wee harmless one.  (Albright even made an appearance in this biased and sloppily written Newsweek story, whose wording wrongly suggests that Albright was a former official of this administration rather than one of its most inflexible critics.)

From there, things get vague.  Fox reports having spoken with “two dozen sources” over the last three weeks, including  “former Bush administration officials, foreign diplomats, and nonproliferation experts” who claimed to have “heard discussions” about DPRK-Syrian nuclear cooperation “in one form or another.”   Others were skeptical and doubted that Syria could afford a uranium enrichment program.  I wonder if this perfect  logic comes from the same people who  said  the same  thing about  North Korea a decade ago.   A greater flaw in the uranium theory is reported by Global Security, with uncharacteristic snark: 

Upon reflection, the suggested activity — a uranium enrichment pilot plant — is precisely the type of facility that would not produce “dramatic satellite imagery”. Indeed, it is the absence of an imagery signature that has frustrated the search for North Korea’s uranium program.  [Global Security]  

It’s a valid point, but not dispositive.  We don’t know what the images show.  For example, the satellites  could have taken  pictures of centrifuge parts being moved into a suspect facility.

Version  2:   A Nuclear Device

The Times of London links this  theory  to the uranium theory.  They say that the Israelis had their eyes on an area in Northern Syria near the Euphrates River for some time and suspected that the Syrians were trying to extract uranium from phosphates.  Then they noted something that alarmed them much more.

According to Israeli sources, preparations for the attack had been going on since late spring, when Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, presented Olmert with evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.  The Israeli spy chief apparently feared such a device could eventually be installed on North-Korean-made Scud-C missiles.  “This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,” said an Israeli source. “We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.   [Times of London]

Version  3:  Nuclear “Material”

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]  

I still can’t help thinking how bizarre the “what little they have left” phase is.  By all accounts, North Korea is wallowing in lakes of phosphorescent ooze made of more isotopes than exist on the periodic table.  North Korea has  shut down Yongbyon for the moment — huzzah  to that  —  but it has yet to unload so much as one spoonful of nuclear material except perhaps accidentally through gutters and floor drains. 

Living in this town means having the ability to go to congressional hearings, panels, meetings, and other venues where policy-makers occasionally betray that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.  It’s a pretty cheap and easy shot, coming from a snarky no-name blogger.  It’s also  very frightening, because it’s true. 

Version  4:  Unspecified Nuclear “Cooperation”

As blogged here previously, but now in the context of  more confusion!

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]

Version  5:  Unspecified Nuclear “Equipment”

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.  [WaPo, Glenn Kessler]  

Being Glenn Kessler, he obligingly brings his pail to the Brookings Institution and hauls back a few gallons of skepticism.  North Korea?  Proliferate?  Who ever heard of such a thing?

Other Theories

I’ll let the Times of London just ramble here:

 

But why would nuclear material be in Syria? Known to have chemical weapons, was it seeking to bolster its arsenal with something even more deadly?  Alternatively, could it be hiding equipment for North Korea, enabling Kim Jong-il to pretend to be giving up his nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid? Or was the material bound for Iran, as some authorities in America suggest?  [Times of London]  

Those theories seem plausible enough, but none appears to be well supported by  the evidence we have.  What’s reasonable is that we should demand answers.  If the North Koreans are really being straight with us, they’ll answer.

A Mystery Ship at the Port of Tartus  

An expert on the Middle East, who has spoken to Israeli participants in the raid, told yesterday’s Washington Post that the timing of the raid on September 6 appeared to be linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying North Korean material labelled as cement but suspected of concealing nuclear equipment. [Times of London]Haaretz, quoting the Washington Post, adds that the ship’s cargo was labeled as cement, but that the real cargo was “nuclear equipment.”  From there, Haaretz continued following the mystery ship, which is where  things really get interesting.  Apparently researcher Ronen Solomon tracks ships on online databases and names the ship in question as the North Korean-flagged “Al-Hamad.”  Suddenly, Solomon noticed that the ship had disappeared from the databases, including that of the Tartous Port and the Egyptian Transportation Ministry.  [Google Maps of Tartus; high alt, low alt, very low alt]   After the Washington Post mentioned the ship, Solomon and Haaretz confirmed that  all mention of it vanished.  The Tartous Port’s Web site even went down for several hours.  When the airbrushing was done, the  ship was  flagged as “unknown.” 

WMD Cooperation  Between Syria and North Korea

North Korea is believed to be the source of North Korea’s SCUD-C missiles and precursors for its chemical weapons, but the transfer of nuclear weapons, equipment, or technology would be a major escalation of that relationship.  Diplomats have noted considerable escalation in the cooperation betweent  the two nations recently.  Both  the Times of London, quoting Israeli sources, and Fox News, quoting  American sources, note  increased sightings of Syrians moving in and out of North Korea by air and by rail, via China.  It wasn’t all whispers and surveillance, either:

On August 14, the North Korean minister of foreign trade, Rim Kyong Man, was in Syria to sign a protocol on “co-operation in trade and science and technology. His delegation held the fifth meeting of a “joint economic committee” with its Syrian counterparts. No details were disclosed.  [Times of London]

We had previously heard that Iranians were present  at the July 4, 2006 missile tests in North Korea.  The Times now reports that Syrians were present, too (you can’t help wondering  how they know that).  Readers may even recall that after the Ryongchon explosion,  one  theory had it that the explosive substance was Syrian-bound missile fuel, and that the explosion  killed several Syrian scientists. 

Finally, the Times claims that Syria has served as a transshipment conduit for missiles components and technology headed from Iran for Syria.  IMHO, that one just defies logic.  Iran has plenty of perfectly fine seaports, while Iran and Syria don’t even share a land border. 

You say you want the complete history of Syria’s  WMD programs?  Enjoy.   The short version is that Syria has shown an unhealthy interest in the atom, but that so far, it appears not to have gotten that far.

Syria has a limited and undeveloped nuclear program, presumably for research purposes. Syria has a small research reactor, provided by China, who also promised to help Syria build a larger 30-megawatt research reactor, but apparently the plan was scrapped due to Syria’s economic problems.

Syria signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and also Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, thus the UN watchdog’s inspectors monitor Syria’s nuclear sites. However, Syria has not signed the additional protocol that allows more intrusive inspections with less than 24-hour advance notice. [Haaretz]

And as I reported two days ago, there are suspicions that whatever the Syrians are up to, North Korea is helping:  

“There are indicators that they do have something going on there,” he said. “We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen.”

“So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that,” he said. “We’re watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely.”

Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, he said: “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans” in Iran.  [IHT]

Business as Usual

To Chris Hill, all of this is just another reason to push on with this deal.  He called the reports ”important reminder of the need to accelerate the process we’re already engaged in and to push for what we’ve already agreed to.”   The show goes on.  ”It does not change the goal that we are aiming for, and our concerns about proliferation have always been a part of the six-party process, and they’ll continue to be,” he said [Kyodo].   The International Herald Tribune also notes that someone had the presence of mind to ask Hill whether he’d demanded an explanation from the North Koreans.  Hill wouldn’t say. 

Yet behind the pretense of blithe ignorance, the International Herald Tribune says that the reports are  “heightening the Bush administration’s concern” about the future of Agreed Framework 2.0, and those who  can’t suspend their disbelief of Kim Jong Il have new cause for despair.  Not that it matters.

“It would be a big mistake for the State Department to push ahead with the six-party process without this being resolved,” said John R. Bolton, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, referring to the diplomatic talks with North Korea. “They are rushing to finish this and declare victory, which could be a catastrophe for the president.  [IHT]

There’s even the basis for an interesting though experiment here.  Does anyone recall hearing advocates of diplomacy under all circumstances, no matter how futile, decry the manipulation and politicization of intelligence? 

Access to the information has been heavily restricted to a team headed by security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of the reports’ significance, the Post quoted sources as saying.  [Haaretz, quoting the WaPo]

In other words, let’s not let the facts get in the way of all of this lovely diplomacy.  Robert Gates sounded more  cautious today: 

“I’m not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully,” Gates said.  He added, “If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts. And obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.”  [AP]

So what  did the Israelis actually bomb?   The predictable wackadoodle conspiracy theories aside, initial reports said it was an Iranian shipment of weapons for Hezbollah, but too many other sources are zeroing in on a North Korean WMD connection of some kind.   The theories aren’t mutually exclusive.

See also:

*   Who is sabotaging North Korea’s power grid?

*   Burma’s monks aren’t giving up.  They’ve formed an alliance and are now demanding the release of all  political prisoners, reductions in comodity prices, and an apology.

When the army began attacking the monks for their prominent part in those protests, “the monks declared that they would not accept any alms from the military, nor would they perform any religious services with regard to the dead and others,” Silverstein said.

“Most of the army is Buddhist,” Silverstein said. “And most of the families of the army are Buddhist, with the result that because of the significance of Buddhism in the lives of the people, this is a very, very serious attack on the military.”  [RFA]  

*   Bruce Klingner has a new piece in the Korea Times, counseling pre-summit caution on the South Korean government.  Doubtless it will fall on deaf ears, but it’s a good read. 

*   Education reform in North Korea would be a truly significant development if it pans out.  Which is exactly why it won’t.

*   The loss of Sheik Sattar to an al-Qaeda suicide bomber was certainly great, but it’s not yet clear how significant it will prove to be.  It’s made slightly less discouraging by the fact that we’ve captured one of the plotters of the murder.  The Army is trying to expand the Anbar model to Shiite areas.  You’d think that an elected Shiite government would have a substantial base of support to throw its lot in with that effort.  And not a moment too soon, because it’s the Shiite areas that worry me most at this point.  In  beautiful prose, David Gelertner explains why some so desperately want America to lose this war.

9 Comments

  1. I wonder if a nuke going off somewhere would be enough to see a shift – a “watershed” moment – in our (Western) societies?….or would it peter out like 9/11….?

  2. Pingback: DPRK Studies

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