Today, U.S. intelligence officials will give closed-door briefings to members of Congress about North Korea’s role in building a reactor in Syria. (Israel, it’s been confirmed, destroyed that nuclear facility with their air-strikes last September.)
Why are the briefings taking place now? This morning the New York Times‘s David Sanger speculated that Vice President Cheney is trying to scuttle the six-party disarmament talks by highlighting Pyongyang’s proliferant behavior. Others have floated more intriguing theories. For example, Jon Wolfsthal, an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, thinks the Bush administration is releasing the information at this time to rescue its tentative deal with the North Koreans by letting them off the hook. “If it turns out we have them dead to rights–that we have enough information on our own–then we can eliminate this as a point of contention,” he says. “Maybe we don’t need to negotiate transparency with North Korea because we already know enough.”
Wolfstal is onto something–this is definitely how the State Department thinks. There is, of course, no reason to humiliate the Koreans publicly by forcing them to confess to something we already know. Yet there are two fundamental flaws with this line of reasoning. First, it is important that the North Koreans make a complete declaration of their proliferation activities to show that they have made the critical decision to stop spreading dangerous technologies. Second, we do not know whether Syria is the only party to which they have transferred such expertise. Specifically, it’s critical that we learn about the extent of Pyongyang’s relationship with Tehran.
There are reports that Iranians traveled to North Korea to witness its October 2006 nuclear test, that the North Koreans sold processed uranium to Iran, and that they have been coaching their Iranian counterparts on how to dodge inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The links between the two nuclear programs appear to go back to the late 1990’s.
North Korea’s proliferant activities may not be limited to just Syria and Iran. They are so extensive that there is concern that Kim Jong Il is trying to replicate the old A.Q. Khan nuclear black market. In any event, Pyongyang’s promise to make a declaration of its nuclear activities is a perfect opportunity for us to find out their real extent.