The Curious Incident in Northern Syria and Its Potential Proliferation Implications

Prepared Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

For the Korea Economic Institute Forum, “What If They Did It? North Korea, Syria, and Nuclear Proliferation,” November 1, 2007

Nearly two months after Israel’s Sept. 6, 2007 raid on a facility in Northern Syria, there is suggestive but ultimately inconclusive evidence that it may have been a small reactor still under construction. Opponents of the six-party process toward the verifiable denuclearization of North Korea are suggesting that possible North Korean involvement may provide reason for a shift in policy regarding the six-party talks and the implementation of the steps outlined in the October 3 joint statement.

Indeed, any North Korean assistance involving the export or technical training, advice, services, or assistance related to items on the trigger list of the Nuclear Suppliers Group would violate North Korea’s and the recipient state’s obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1718 of October 14, 2006 “to cease the export” of items “which could contribute to DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction related programmes.”

Furthermore, in the recent six-party talks statement of October 3, 2007: “The DPRK reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how.” While North Korean assistance may have predated the October 3 statement and even the October 2006 Security Council resolution, it would clearly violate the spirit of its commitments.

The reports citing unnamed sources alleging that the facility was a nuclear reactor and that North Korea might have provided assistance raise extremely troubling questions about Syrian and North Korean behavior. However, I believe that even if there is strong evidence of North Korean complicity, it would be imprudent for the administration or the Congress to take actions or make statements that might scuttle the six party process.

We must recall that in the fall of 2002, the administration accused North Korea of pursuing a uranium enrichment program on the basis of preliminary intelligence assessments that were later revised to reflect that the program was not as advanced as previously believed. Nevertheless, the United States decided at the time to cut-off heavy fuel oil shipments that were part of the Agreed Framework – an agreement some in the Bush administration were only too eager to rip apart. As a result, North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors, restarted plutonium operations, produced enough fissile material for about 10 bombs, and, in 2006, engaged in an orgy of missile flight testing, and set off a nuclear test explosion.

In the final analysis, U.S. policymakers must weigh whether the risk posed by the possible construction of a Syrian research reactor and possible North Korean assistance warrants the possible delay in verifiably dismantling a known and greater threat: North Korea’s own research reactor; reprocessing plant, and accounting for and taking out of circulation whatever nuclear bombs, nuclear bomb material, and uranium enrichment equipment North Korea may have.

This does not mean that the U.S. policymakers cannot be “tactically tough” as John Bolton argues they should, it just means that their response needs to be carefully calibrated and must amount to more than overheated rhetoric and name-calling.

If Syria was indeed building a reactor and if North Korea was involved, there are other steps the United States could – and should – take to hold the DPRK accountable and ensure that Pyongyang provides no further nuclear assistance to other states without derailing the prospects of verifiably dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program and risking the possibility of further North Korean proliferation transgressions. I’ll go into further detail about this in a few minutes.

In addition, if there is or was credible U.S. or foreign intelligence information or other evidence that Syria was engaged in building a reactor, I believe it should have been presented to the IAEA and/or the Security Council for evaluation so that a collective response – and follow up investigation -- could be undertaken.

As a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, Syria is obligated under the current interpretation of paragraph 42 of its comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/153) to provide design information on new facilities to the Agency as soon as the decision to construct or authorize construction of a new facility is taken (i.e. well before construction actually begins) in order to create confidence in the peaceful purpose of the facility and to provide adequate lead-time for safeguards preparations.(1)

If Israel or the United States had information suggesting Syria was building a reactor or some other prohibited item, it could have informed the IAEA and/or the Security Council, which could then – and could still -- call upon on Syria to clarify the purpose of the facility and possibly lead to an IAEA investigation and visit to the site.

This is essentially what the United States did in 2002 with information that surfaced about Iran’s unreported nuclear activities at the Natanz site.

Such an investigation could have been and could still be immensely useful not only in understanding the nature of the facility but also the sources of assistance. We must consider that North Korea may not have been the main or sole supplier of nuclear technology and components. Syria is of course suspected of having received assistance from the A.Q. Khan network.(2)

Utilizing the Agency to draw attention to a possible Syrian violation of safeguards would put Syria on the defensive and strengthen the credibility of the institution as an effective and legitimate instrument in monitoring and enforcing compliance at a time when the Security Council and the IAEA are at odds with Iran.

Such a message might also have been more helpful in persuading Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, come clean about its nuclear program, and agree to a diplomatic resolution.

In addition, the failure of any state to report any information to the IAEA about possible nuclear safeguards violations, and Israel’s “strike first, ask questions later approach” are also worrisome and unwise and undermine the authority of the IAEA in sifting out the truth in Iran and elsewhere.

Knowns and Unknowns

While there are still more questions than answers at this point, it is important to sift out the “knowns” from the “unknowns.”

Based on that, we might draw some preliminary conclusions, formulate some reasonable hypotheses that might help explain events that have unfolded to date, and consider what should and should not be done in response to these possibilities.

What we “know” is this:

  • Syria and Israel have acknowledged there was a strike on a “military facility” in Syria.
  • Satellite imagery suggests the facility could have been a small research reactor similar in design to the 5 megawatt North Korean reactor at Yongbyon. Such a facility by itself would not constitute a clear and imminent danger to either Israel or the United States given that Syria would also need to have a plutonium reprocessing facility to harvest plutonium for a weapon. Syria already possesses a very small research reactor under IAEA safeguards.
  • We know from commercial satellite imagery that Syria cleared the site after the raid. By itself, this proves little, though it certainly raises suspicions that Syria is trying to remove evidence that the structure could have been used to house a reactor or something else it doesn’t want others to see. The raid itself and Syria’s clearing of the site clearly would complicate any on site investigation by the IAEA or others to determine whether a reactor was under construction.
  • Commercial satellite photos also indicate that construction on the main building was well underway in Sept. 2003, which means Syria may have received assistance sometime before that date. This also likely means that the site has been under Western satellite surveillance for some time and it suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts did not believe that it was a reactor or some other missile or WMD-related facility.
  • Some press reports quote unnamed officials saying that North Korean nationals were present at the site. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation Andrew Semmel also told reporters on 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. This suggests that any information about North Koreans at the site would most likely have come from a human intelligence source or sources, which are not always reliable or precise.
  • This is not the first time there has been a controversy over intelligence assessments concerning the Syrian nuclear program. You might recall that Knight Ridder newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others reported that in 2003, Undersecretary of State John 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.(3)
  • We know that only the top Congressional intelligence and foreign affairs committee members have been briefed by the U.S. intelligence community on the incident. And two of them, Reps. Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen, complained bitterly in an Oct. 21 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that “until Congress is fully briefed, it would be imprudent for the administration to move forward with agreements with state proliferators.”
  • We also know that Administration officials, while declining to publicly comment on the incident itself, have said that the six-party disarmament deal with North Korea would not go ahead if North Korea was found to be smuggling nuclear arms, equipment or know-how abroad.

Asked at a Capitol Hill hearing on Oct. 25 by Democratic Representative David Scott of Georgia if the issue of the Syrian facility had been brought up in disarmament talks with North Korea, Assistant Secretary of Sate for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Christopher Hill said: "Yes, I have raised this issue."

During a Sept. 20 press conference, President Bush was asked a question about the Syrian raid and reports of North Korean involvement to which he said: “to the extent that they are proliferating, we expect them to stop that proliferation, if they want the six-party talks to be successful.”

What May Explain the Events That have Unfolded to Date: Two Theories

So, what actually might have gone on and why is the administration maintaining official silence on the matter?

If Syria was building a nuclear reactor or some other nuclear facility and if North Korea was involved, what is the appropriate course of action to prevent further proliferation of the kind, while simultaneously ensuring that North Korea’s current commitments under the October 3 implementation agreement for the disablement of its nuclear facilities and full declaration of its nuclear program go forward?

Should Congress be fully briefed? What should be done to uncover what Syria was up to and who might have provided illicit equipment and know-how?

Based on what is in the public domain there seem to be two plausible theories:

Theory 1. Given that the Syrian facility was under surveillance and construction for some time and given that the U.S. intelligence community apparently did not believe that it was a nuclear-related project, senior U.S. officials were not confident enough to confront Syria publicly with the charge. Recall the 2003 debate about how to characterize the Syrian nuclear program. Likewise, given that the information suggesting a North Korean presence at the site would likely have come from a human intelligence source or sources, senior U.S. officials might not have had high enough confidence in the information to publicly accuse North Korea of violating its nuclear non-assistance pledges.

Still, based on statements by Christopher Hill and President Bush, it is clear that the matter has been pursued with the North Koreans privately and that the Bush administration has probably already made it clear that if North Korea wants to see the six-party agreement implemented, including removing the DPRK from the state sponsors of terrorism list, North Korea cannot be engaged in any proliferation activity.

If the administration has not already done so, it should demand that the “complete and correct declaration of all of North Korea’s nuclear programs” -- as called for in the Feb. 13 2007 and Oct. 3 six-party statements -- must include a full accounting of all North Korean nuclear-related commerce or technical assistance to other states or non-state actors.

Theory 2. It is also possible that the United States government has information that more clearly demonstrates Syrian nuclear activity at the site and direct involvement by the North Koreans. Even if this is the case, the administration may be forging ahead with the six-party process and taking the matter up with North Korea privately because they correctly understand the value of using the six-party process to verifiably dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and snuff-out its proliferation activities rather than publicly taking issue with North Korea on the matter and risking the possibility that they will deny their involvement, if only to save face.

As 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.”

Congress’ Role
Under either scenario, it is important that the administration brief relevant Congressional members and committees sooner than later. While there are clearly some members of Congress who will seek to use this incident to undercut support for the appropriation of funds to provide North Korea with heavy fuel oil as called for in the six-party agreement, Congressional support for the administration’s policy and the six-party process will likely erode if they are kept in the dark.

Eventually, Congress and possibly the rest of us will find out more about the events surrounding the Israeli raid and the target – either through official channels or from someone like Glenn Kessler. It is important to note that when there are lives at stake, sources to protect, or ongoing intelligence activities underway, there may good reason to delay providing Congress with a full accounting. However, we are now almost two months beyond the Sept. 6 raid and it is difficult to understand why other members of Congress have not yet been briefed.

Furthermore, even if North Korea was engaged in ongoing proliferation activity, it is likely that the administration could persuade Congress that they should not jeopardize the larger aims of the six-party process by withholding support for heavy fuel oil shipments. Rather, the administration could future “benefits,” such as removal of North Korea from the state sponsor of terrorism list, if it does not fully account for its nuclear program and cease all foreign nuclear and missile assistance.

So in conclusion, what if North Korea and Syria were colluding on a secret nuclear project?

  1. It should be condemned and the IAEA should request access to the site and be provided relevant information from other states as part of an investigation.
  2. The Bush administration and Congress should agree to use – not abandon the six party process to ensure that North Korea is no longer engaged in such activities.
  3. The Bush administration should brief Congress about the episode in order to solidify support for the six party denuclearization agreement and any actions the administration may pursue through the IAEA Board of Governors and/or the Security Council regarding possible Syrian nuclear activities.

Thank you.

1. Prior to 1992, the phrase in para 42 of the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/153), which reads "as early as possible before nuclear material is introduced into a new facility" was translated into meaning that design information for new nuclear facilities needed to be provided to the Agency "no later than 6 months before the introduction of nuclear material into a new facility". This interpretation was included in the General Parts of the Subsidiary Arrangements that are attached to each comprehensive safeguards agreement.
As a safeguards strengthening measure, the Board agreed to a new interpretation of paragraph 42 proposed by the Secretariat in February 1992 (GOV/2554/Att.2/Rev. 2), which requires that design information on new facilities be provided to the Agency as soon as the decision to construct or authorize construction of a new facility is taken (i.e. well before construction actually begins) in order to create confidence in the peaceful purpose of the facility and to provide adequate lead-time for safeguards preparations.  All non-nuclear weapon state NPT parties under comprehensive safeguards were also required to adapt their related Subsidiary Arrangements to take into account the new interpretation.

2. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation Andy Semmel stated on Sept. 14 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 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.”

3. According to a July 15, Knight Ridder report (“CIA: Assessment of Syria's WMD exaggerated,” by Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay), “U.S. officials told Knight Ridder that Bolton was prepared to tell members of a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee that Syria's development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a point that they posed a threat to stability in the region. The CIA and other intelligence agencies said that assessment was exaggerated.”