WASHINGTON – North Korea may be cooperating with Syria on some sort of nuclear facility in Syria, according to 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 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. Some cautioned that initial reports of suspicious activity are frequently re-evaluated over time and were skeptical that North Korea and Syria, which have cooperated on missile technology, would have a joint venture in the nuclear arena.
A White House spokesman and the Israeli Embassy declined to comment Wednesday after several days of inquiries. A Syrian Embassy spokesman said he could not immediately provide a statement.
The new intelligence comes at an awkward moment for the Bush administration, which since the beginning of the year has pursued an agreement with North Korea on ending its nuclear weapons programs. U.S. and North Korean officials held talks last month in Geneva on the steps needed to normalize relations, and this week a delegation of U.S., Russian and Chinese experts visited North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility to consider ways to disable it.
At the Geneva talks, North Korea indicated a willingness to satisfy U.S. questions about an alleged uranium-enrichment program that started the crisis over its nuclear ambitions, the sources said. U.S. officials have said that North Korean officials acknowledged the program in 2002, but Pyongyang subsequently denied doing so. In the meantime, it restarted a plutonium facility at Yongbyon and harvested enough weapons-grade material for as many as 10 nuclear weapons. In October, it tested a nuclear device.
In talks in Beijing in March 2003, a North Korean official pulled aside his American counterpart and threatened to “transfer” nuclear material to other countries. President Bush has said that passing North Korean nuclear technology to other parties would cross the line.
Israel conducted a mysterious raid last week against targets in Syria. The Israeli government has refused to divulge any details, but a former Israeli official said he had been told that it was an attack against a facility capable of making unconventional weapons.
Others have speculated that Israel was testing Syria’s air defenses in preparation for a raid on Iran or that Israel was targeting weapons destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that the idea of a Hezbollah connection was ridiculous.
Syria has signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty but has not agreed to an additional protocol that would allow for enhanced inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. GlobalSecurity.org, which offers information on weapons of mass destruction, said that “although Syria has long been cited as posing a nuclear proliferation risk, the country seems to have been too strapped for cash to get far.”
Syria has a Chinese-supplied “miniature” research reactor at Dayr al-Hajar, but has been unable to obtain larger reactors because of international pressure on potential sellers.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a critic of the administration’s dealings with North Korea, said that given North Korea’s trade in missiles with Syria, it is “legitimate to ask questions about whether that cooperation extends on the nuclear side as well.”