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June 2, 2022
NK-Syria Nuclear Connection Questionable

Peter Crail

Since news reports surfaced regarding the Sept. 6 incursions of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) into Syrian airspace, numerous theories have emerged regarding the intent and results of the reported raid. The most serious and most questionable allegation is that the purpose of the IAF flights is related to North Korean assistance for a Syrian nuclear weapons program. Damascus has called claims of nuclear cooperation with North Korea “fabricated and groundless accounts that have no value whatsoever,” and Pyongyang has dismissed them as “preposterous misinformation.”

Syria’s existing nuclear program has been limited to nuclear research activities monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Syria maintains a single, miniature, 30-kilowatt research reactor located near Damascus. Syria has engaged in a number of technical cooperation projects with the IAEA since 1979, including uranium exploration and recovery from phosphates. Financial challenges have hindered the expansion of Syria’s uranium extraction efforts.

Sustained Silence by Israel, Few Details From Syria

The level of speculation regarding the incursions is largely due to the fact that neither Israel nor Syria have provided much information about what actually happened during the Sept. 6 incident.

Israeli officials have refrained from commenting on the nature of the raid. The only substantial response from an Israeli official came from former Prime Minister and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated in a Sept. 19 interview, “I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute, and I gave it my backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject.”

The initial announcement regarding the incident came from Syria on the morning of the raid. The official Syrian television media quoted a Syrian military spokesperson as saying, “Israeli enemy aircrafts infiltrated into the Syrian airspace overnight Thursday through the northern border, coming from the Mediterranean heading towards the eastern-northern region, breaking the sound barrier,” adding that “air defense units confronted them and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage.”

Syria has submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations regarding the incursions but has denied that an attack occurred. Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, stated Sept. 15, “There was no target, they dropped their munitions. They were running away after they were confronted by our air defense.”

On Sept. 11, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that Pyongyang strongly condemned the Israeli incursion and elicited “full support and solidarity to the Syrian people in their just cause to defend the national security.”

Similar condemnations have been issued by North Korea in the past. On July 6, 2006, the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper responded to IAF flights over Syrian airspace by declaring “the Korean people vehemently condemn the above-said violation of Syria’s sovereignty by Israel and fully support Syria’s exercise of its legitimate right to self-defense.”

Little Official U.S. Response

The most detailed public statement by a current administration official on North Korean-Syrian cooperation has come from Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation Andrew Semmel. Responding to questions from reporters, Semmel remarked Sept. 14, “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that,” adding “[j]ust as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran.” Semmel did not clarify what sort of activities the North Koreans were conducting in Syria.

He also indicated that “[w]e do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen,” further noting that “[w]e’re watching very closely.”

Semmel’s comments mirror a 2004 declassified report to Congress by the director of national intelligence (DNI) on weapons of mass destruction proliferation. The report, released last year, discusses potential Syrian contacts with the A.Q. Khan network. It indicates that “Pakistani investigators in late January 2004 said they had ‘confirmation’ of an IAEA allegation that [Abdul Qadeer] Khan offered nuclear technology and hardware to Syria, according to Pakistani press, and we are concerned that expertise or technology could have been transferred. We continue to monitor Syrian nuclear intentions with concern.”

John Bolton, former U.S. permanent representative to the UN, has cited the possibility of such assistance from North Korea for several years, including in a Sept. 25 Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he stated that, given North Korea’s history of ballistic missile cooperation, “it should come as no surprise that North Korea would try it again in the nuclear field.” In a Sept. 16 interview with Israeli Channel 10 TV, Bolton indicated that he believed a “high-value target” such as a “Syrian effort in the nuclear weapons area” would be the most likely purpose of the Sept. 6 IAF flights into Syria.

However, Bolton has been challenged in the past by other administration officials regarding his assessment of Syria’s nuclear efforts. In 2003, Bolton was forced to call off congressional testimony because members of the intelligence community were concerned that Bolton was prepared to assert stronger claims regarding concerns over Syria’s pursuit of nuclear weapons than was warranted by the intelligence. (See ACT, June 2005.)

Although there has been no clear evidence to date of North Korean assistance to a Syrian nuclear program, North Korea has had a long history of providing short-range ballistic missiles, launchers, and components to Syria. The 2004 DNI report states that Syria’s “liquid-propellant missile program continued to depend on essential foreign equipment and assistance—primarily from North Korean entities.” The report also indicates that Syria is receiving assistance from North Korea and Iran on longer-range missile programs.

Six-Party Talks to Address Proliferation Concerns

Given the lack of clarity regarding both the extent of North Korea’s work on uranium enrichment as well as the possibility that Pyongyang provided related assistance to Syria, U.S. officials have said the appropriate avenue for addressing these concerns is in the current six-party negotiations on North Korean denuclearization.

Responding to questions about the potential effect the reports of Syrian-North Korea nuclear cooperation might have on the talks, the U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, told reporters Sept. 14, “The reason we have the six-party process and the reason we have put together a number of pretty serious countries in this process is to make sure that the North Koreans get out of the nuclear business.” He added that the United States hopes to get an idea of whether North Korea engaged in nuclear proliferation to other countries by the end of the talks.

President George W. Bush did not comment directly on the incident, but during a Sept. 20 press conference, he issued a vague warning to North Korea that “to the extent that they are proliferating, we expect them to stop that proliferation, if they want the six-party talks to be successful.”