North Korea's Syrian Connection

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US intelligence officials say that the structure destroyed in an Israeli air strike in September, 2007 (above) was a nuclear reactor.

Throughout his entire first term and most of his second, U.S. President George W. Bush has tried pretty much everything to get North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to come out of his cage. He has tried to coerce him with economic sanctions and schoolboy bluster—a policy course that ended on in the autumn of 2006, when Kim tested a nuclear weapon, precisely the opposite of the result Bush intended. Since then, the Administration has tried bribery, offering blandishments like food and free fuel oil in hopes that in return North Korea would stand down its nuclear program. Kim has responded a bit—his nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which produced the fissile material for the North's estimated 8 to 10 nuclear bombs—is slowly being shut down. But Kim has refused to detail all the other components of his nuclear program, including an alleged uranium enrichment effort, and he has continued to sell North Korean nuclear expertise into a buyer's market of rogue states.

Exasperated, the Administration yesterday unveiled North Korea policy version 3.0. Bush is now trying to shame North Korea into complying with what it had agreed to do in talks with the U.S. and four other negotiating partners (China, Russia, Japan and South Korea). In a convincing presentation to reporters in Washington, the Administration produced damning photographic evidence of what has been whispered about for seven months now: North Korea was intimately involved in helping Syria build a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor, "basically a copy of Yongbyon," one Administration official told TIME.

Last year, on Sept. 6, Israel put an end to that project, bombing it out of existence. Ever since, there has been a cone of official silence placed around what had happened, with neither Jerusalem nor Washington nor anyone else confirming the operation. Two months ago, in Seoul, I pressed a senior South Korean negotiator in the six-party talks for information about the Syrian-North Korean connection. He squirmed a little and said it was his impression that the so-called al Kibar site was just a "missile factory," not a nuclear facility. That, we learned yesterday, was false.

There were reasons for the seven months of silence. Bush Administration officials say they were worried that Syria might start a new war in the Middle East if they were publicly fingered after the attack. In other words, it was one thing for Israel to send bombers into Syrian airspace and obliterate a massively expensive nuclear reactor that had been under construction for years. Syrian President Basahr Assad could apparently accept that. But talking about it in public? Now that was really going to hack the Syrians off — so much so they might start a war against Israel that they would almost surely lose.

No. The major reason for the silence, say former Administration officials and Asian diplomats, was an ongoing struggle over the Bush Administration's North Korea policy. The State Department, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the U.S. point man for North Korea talks, still believe the only sensible path is the one they have been on for the last two years: trying, oh so patiently, to come to a deal with Kim that will at least eliminate his regime's plutonium program and the weapons it produced. Everything else, they believe, is secondary, a "sideshow," says a South Korean diplomat.

Set against them are the North Korea skeptics, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who believe North Korea has no intention of giving up its nukes, no matter what diplomatic agreements it signs. The most vocal of this group is Bush's former UN representative John Bolton, who likens the State Department to a drunk searching for car keys near a lamppost, even though he knows the keys were lost in the bar. Asked by a passerby why he keeps looking near the lamppost, the drunk replies: "Because the light is better."

The hawks were delighted with yesterday's presentation about the Syrian connection, hoping that the North will be so angered by it that Kim will abandon the six-party talks, bringing down the curtain on what Bolton and others believe has been a feckless effort by the State Department. But Administration officials insist they don't expect that to happen. They believe North Korea 3.0 — the "shame on you" policy — may pay off. "I doubt they're walking away," says one diplomat involved in the talks. Yes, they say, North Korea's obvious and serial proliferation is a huge problem. That's why getting Pyongyang to mothball its plutonium program has already been a significant accomplishment. Convincing Kim to surrender his stash of weapons, and whatever plutonium it has left over, would be another big step forward, and should remain the focus of the Administration's policy.

Consider the reason given at yesterday's briefing in Washington for the North's motivation in helping Syria build a reactor: "Cash," said a CIA official. The North is a gangster state. It earns hard currency anyway it can—including selling weapons and its expertise in producing them. The point of the diplomacy is give Kim sufficient incentives—both economic and diplomatic—to get to a point where he and his regime don't need to do that anymore to survive. A return to what used to be called, in the early years of the Bush Administration, a "strangulation" strategy, only increases the incentive for Kim to behave badly, with very little hope that the Pyongyang government will disappear anytime soon, not so long as China, the North's only real ally, is doing what it can to forestall collapse.

Dealing with Kim's regime is an arduous, sometimes humiliating process. Christopher Hill privately has let it be known that it drives him nuts to be portrayed as aiding and abetting such an odious crowd. But bribing Kim is the only realistic strategy. When the next Administration takes over in January, with its own North Korea policy, it's going to come to the same conclusion, whether the President is named Obama, Clinton or McCain.