North Korea Mum on Syrian Nuclear Cooperation

By Patrick Goodenough | April 28, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - South Korea's new chief nuclear negotiator is scheduled to meet his American counterpart in Washington on Monday, amid continuing fallout over claims of nuclear collaboration between North Korea and Syria.

North Korea has yet to react publicly to evidence, presented during intelligence briefings on Capitol Hill last Thursday, indicating that North Korea secretly helped Syria develop a nuclear reactor for military purposes before Israeli warplanes destroyed it last September.

Syrian diplomats dismissed the accusations as "ridiculous," and the official SANA news agency quoted a government source as saying the U.S. should stop trying to fabricate more crises in the Middle East.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says it is investigating the proliferation allegations. Syria is obliged under agreements with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog to report the planning and building of any nuclear facility.

The IAEA also criticized the U.S. for not passing on the intelligence information earlier and censured Israel for bombing the suspect site. The agency said its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, "views the unilateral military action by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime."

State Department nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill, in comments broadcast on Japanese television at the weekend, said the U.S. government believed North Korea and Syria were no longer cooperating in the nuclear field.

Before leaving Seoul for talks with Hill, South Korea's newly appointed delegate to the six-party denuclearization talks, Kim Sook, said the proliferation claims were cause for concern.

An agreement reached at six-party talks last year would provide North Korea with diplomatic and security benefits plus aid, in return for full denuclearization and a complete declaration of all nuclear activities.

Differences over the latter requirement, which is now almost four months overdue, have been holding up the deal. North Korea's declaration is meant to include an admission of any proliferation of nuclear material or know-how, as well as a full accounting of all nuclear activities, including plutonium- and uranium-based programs.

When Hill met with his North Korean counterpart in Singapore earlier this month, they reportedly reached a tentative deal to break the deadlock by allowing North Korea to "acknowledge" some U.S. concerns privately rather than spell out its activities in full.

Some in the U.S., Republican lawmakers among them, worry that the administration is shifting away from requirements negotiated earlier, in order to salvage an agreement it can hold up as a foreign policy success before the end of President Bush's term.

While the concern has come mostly from conservatives who would rather isolate than negotiate with North Korea, even some who support the diplomatic process are uneasy.

"Better to let the talks continue than to make one-sided concessions," Leslie Gelb and Winston Lord, senior State Department officials in the Carter and Clinton administrations, respectively, wrote in an op-ed published at the weekend.

"Better to sharpen North Korean compliance or -- failing that -- to string out our own," they argued, saying that holding Pyongyang to its commitments "is the only way to preserve American credibility and bargaining leverage."

Even as the administration draws fire for a perceiving softening in its approach toward Pyongyang, South Korea and Japan, Washington's closest allies in the six-party talks (which also involve China and Russia), are signaling a tougher stance towards North Korea.

South Korea's conservative new president, Lee Myung-bak, moving away from his two liberal predecessors' policies, says any future aid to the North will be linked to its compliance in the denuclearization effort.

Japan earlier this month renewed its own sanctions against North Korea, imposed after Pyongyang carried out a nuclear test in 2006.

Tokyo is strongly opposed to seeing Kim Jong-il's regime win the diplomatic concessions it is demanding -- especially removal from a U.S. list of terror-sponsors, a top priority for Pyongyang -- before resolution of a dispute over North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

The U.S. position, however, has been that there is no link between the kidnapping issue and removal from the terrorism list.

In the State Department's annual reports on global terrorism, the last incident of North Korean sponsorship of terrorism cited is the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people.

But a Congressional Research Service report released last December and updated in January points to allegations of much more recent suspect activity, including reports that missiles fired into Israel by Hizballah in 2006 contained key North Korean components; and that the Sri Lankan Navy in 2006 and 2007 foiled attempts by North Korea to smuggle weapons to the Tamil Tigers.

Both the Iranian-backed Hizballah and the Tigers, whose official name is Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, thus any government's support for their activities would constitute state-sponsorship.

Any plan to remove North Korea from the terror-sponsor list would require the administration to notify Congress 45 days before acting.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow