Nuclear Disclosures Imperil a North Korea Deal

U.S. says North Korea aided a secret Syrian nuclear reactor project.

This CIA image of a Syrian nuclear reactor shows a strong resemblance to the one near Yongbyon in North Korea.

This CIA image of a Syrian nuclear reactor shows a strong resemblance to the one near Yongbyon in North Korea.

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The public disclosure of evidence (.pdf) that North Korea allegedly was secretly aiding the construction of a nuclear reactor in a remote part of Syria has delivered a blow to already shaky prospects for completing North Korea's denuclearization.

Capitol Hill briefings Thursday by U.S. intelligence officials broke the formal silence about what lay behind the Israeli airstrike last September 6 that destroyed a facility described as a nearly completed nuclear reactor complex similar to North Korea's Yongbyon plutonium reactor. U.S. officials also showed a photograph, apparently taken in Syria, of the manager of the North Korean facility with the director of Syria's nuclear agency.

North Korea has denied any involvement with the project, and Syria this week branded the allegations as false and reminiscent of misleading accusations about Iraqi unconventional weapons efforts. U.S. officials were vague about some aspects of the project, including where Syria would get the uranium for the reactor and how it would handle the complex reprocessing necessary if it wanted to extract weapons-grade plutonium from the reactors' fuel rods.

While the disclosures bolster critics who say North Korea can't be trusted to abide by a potential denuclearization deal, administration policymakers argue that the U.S. and other countries should stick with the six-nation negotiations that aim to take North Korea out of the nuclear business.

This week's high-profile disclosures fueled suspicions—by Democrats and others backing the State Department's effort to salvage a denuclearization process—that hard-liners in the administration pushed to make the information public in an attempt to kill the North Korea talks.

And there are as rumors that the architect of the administration's negotiating outreach to the North, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, may be preparing to resign his post.

Some conservatives in and out of government contend that the administration is wobbling on North Korea—specifically, on its oft-stated insistence that North Korea had to fully reveal not only its well-known plutonium fuel activities, but also a suspected, if nascent, effort to enrich uranium, along with its alleged atomic assistance to Syria.

Their fear—voiced most clearly by former Bush administration official-turned-critic John Bolton—is that in its zeal for closing a deal with the North and improving President Bush's foreign policy legacy, the State Department is going soft on a regime that is all too ready to capitalize on U.S. weakness.

State rejects that characterization, and officials have been stressing that, despite recent progress, no deal yet exists that would pave the way for the full disclosure of North Korean nuclear activities required by the six-nation agreements. Such a declaration could mark a full resumption of the steps that are supposed to lead to actual disarmament. North Korea missed its end-of-year deadline for a complete disclosure of nuclear work, though it has been slowly disabling its plutonium-producing reactor complex at Yongbyon.

Bush is calling on critics to reserve judgment until a disclosure comes in: "In other words," he said recently, "we'll see." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that a "full account" is still needed from the North.

Another State Department official pushed back against the conservative critics. "The administration has a clear goal—the denuclearization of North Korea—and it hasn't retreated from that goal," said the official.

What is clear, though, is that the administration has been de-emphasizing the exact nature of the required North Korean declaration and publicly focusing, instead, on the known plutonium program rather than the suspected uranium one, whose existence remains in dispute. It is also talking up future verification as the means of checking out North Korean claims. That sort of tactical negotiating flexibility—championed by Hill—has dismayed some conservatives.