Pyongyang and Damascus
The new information about SyrianNorth Korean nuclear weapons collaboration is a devastating blow to the Bush State Department’s efforts to use the six-party talks to rehabilitate Kim Jong-il’s Stalinist regime. Over the past year, since the February 2007 signing of an agreement in which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill has attempted to negotiate concrete steps to end the weapons activities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions that would end Pyongyang’s isolation. But, as these negotiations unfolded, serious questions have (not surprisingly) risen about North Korea’s intentions and Washington’s ability to verify completely that North Korea has ended its weapons programs and is not involved in proliferation.
Despite the administration’s current spin campaign, that goal seems farther away than ever now that the White House has briefed Congress about North Ko- rean-Syrian collaboration and the Sept. 6, 2007, Israel Air Force raid that destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear facility. A video provided by U.S. intelligence agencies and shown to reporters and senior congressional representatives who were briefed on April 24 demonstrates that the Syrian facility had no means of producing civilian electricity. Its actual purpose was to produce plutonium. One indication that Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation was not peaceful in nature was the presence in Syria of Chon Chibu, who overseas North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor-fuel plant and has participated in the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. The video shows Mr. Chon meeting in Syria with Ibrahim Othman, head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.
Unfortunately, the administration (which only made the evidence about Al Kibar public after receiving pressure from Capitol Hill) remains determined to go to extraordinary lengths to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt. The Bush administration says that in response to criticism from Capitol Hill, it is renegoti- ating a tentative agreement with North Korea to provide better verification safeguards. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week suggested that the administration wants to remove North Korea from the U.S. terrorism list — a critical U.S. negotiating card — before verification is completed. That would be a serious mistake.
One bright spot is that Congress has suddenly become much more energetic about performing its oversight responsibilities when it comes to North Korea. On the Senate side, 14 Republican senators have written President Bush expressing well-founded concerns that the weak U.S. negotiating posture with Mr. Kim’s regime sends the wrong message to Tehran. And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden has rightly stated that Washington should not lift sanctions on Pyongyang unless it is verified to be out of the proliferation business. Congress must demand that the administration provide a full accounting of North Korea’s proliferation activities.