On Wednesday, the State Department’s Christopher Hill told Senators that any past transmittal of nuclear weapons technology from North Korea to Syria would not undermine current efforts to disarm Pyongyang. “I came away with the sense that whatever, if anything ever had occurred in the past, it is not occurring now, and I think our negotiators feel that with good confidence,” said Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat.
If there is any confidence that North Korea is not currently proliferating, it is only because Israel struck and destroyed from the air a Syrian nuclear facility on September 6. David Albright, the former UN weapons inspector, thinks it was a reactor of North Korean design. Others have adopted the more ominous assessment that the target was a facility for processing North Korean plutonium. High-level consultations between Damascus and Pyongyang occurred in the immediate aftermath of the raid. And it is now known that the North Koreans, despite their prior agreement reached in February, are refusing to provide information about sensitive aspects of their nuclear program, especially their links to other rogue states. North Korea has merchandised every conventional weapons system it has ever produced—recent disclosures relate to sales to Hizballah—so it is prudent to wonder about transfers of nuclear tech as well, especially because Iranians were in North Korea to witness its only known detonation of a nuke, in October of last year.
Hill makes the technical point that it is only the present and future that matter when it comes to Pyongyang’s sales of dangerous technologies. In a strict sense, he is perfectly correct. Yet he is asking Senators—and the rest of us—to ignore the conduct of North Koreans in the immediate past, even though such conduct is the best indication of what they will do in the future. In September 2005 the North Koreans promised to give up their most destructive weapons. In February of this year they agreed to specific steps to do so. If Pyongyang was actively selling fissile material and technology as late as this September—and would be doing so now but for the Israeli raid—there is great reason to doubt the value of its current promises.
Short of the use of force, we can assure ourselves that Kim Jong Il has disarmed only if we send inspectors into every corner of his miserable country. If we don’t do that, we must trust the word of a leadership that has continuously lied to the international community about its nuclear weapons efforts since 1985, when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Bush administration no longer talks about “CVID”—complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament of North Korea, its old formulation and the only basis on which we should proceed. With the way things are going, Christopher Hill will soon declare that China has become a democracy, the Palestinians really want peace, and North Korea has already disarmed.