The Washington Post reports that evidence of a nuclear partnership between North Korea and Syria has received top-level attention in the Bush administration. In what appears to be a reverse of the problems of 9/11, the data has bypassed much of the intelligence bureaucracy and gone straight to the top:
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. Some cautioned that initial reports of suspicious activity are frequently reevaluated 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. …
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.
The story began when Syria complained of an Israeli overflight in the north end of their country, later adding that the Israeli jets had “dropped ordnance” on Syrian territory. The Israelis refused to confirm or deny the allegation, a rather significant silence considering the nature of Syria’s claims. Yesterday, word started getting around about a potential “unconventional weapons” site — and oddly, North Korea protested the attack in general terms.
Up to now, Syria has been seen as a low risk for nuclear proliferation. They don’t have a lot of cash for nuclear research, although they do have a small reactor system for that purpose. They also know that the US would find Syria a much easier target than Iran if Bashar Assad decided to indulge in the same kind of brinksmanship as Teheran. The rewards haven’t outweighed the costs, at least not until now.
Kim Jong-Il needs cash badly, and it’s not unthinkable that he would sell his nation’s low-rent experience for some hard currency. Even though the DPRK couldn’t successfully test its own nuclear weapons, the research would still be valuable to another nation looking for a nuclear starter kit. With Israel pressuring Syria from the south and the US to the east in Iraq, Assad may have scrounged up enough money to get Kim to start transferring his program, which is about to come to a close on the Korean peninsula.
An Israeli strike would have ended all of that. The US may be breathing a little easier after what looks like a second Osirak strike by the Israeli military.