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Analysts Mull N. Korea’s Link to Syrian Nuclear Site

April 25, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Following the CIA's release of information on Thursday linking Syria's supposed nuclear reactor site to North Korean technology, analysts review the evidence and discuss the future of relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the evidence of North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Top U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of Congress and reporters yesterday about North Korea helping Syria build a nuclear reactor.

A key piece of evidence: an 11-minute video showing the Syrian facility. Here’s a brief excerpt.

VIDEO NARRATOR: This photograph shows the top of the reactor vessel in the reactor hall before concrete was poured around the vertical control rod and refueling tubes.

Note the similar arrangement of vertical tube openings in the top of the Syrian reactor on the left and North Korea’s Yongbyon plutonium production reactor on the right.

We assessed the Syrian reactor was similar in size and capacity to this North Korean reactor. Only North Korea has built such gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors in the past 35 years.

Uncertainty over weaponization

JUDY WOODRUFF: This latest intelligence comes at a sensitive time, as the U.S. and other nations are in talks with North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

For an assessment of this intelligence and its significance, we get two views. David Albright is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which studies nuclear programs worldwide.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, which is a Washington research organization.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. And I'm going to start with you, David Albright.

Now that you've had a day to look over this evidence put forward by the administration and by intelligence officials, how persuasive is it?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, Institute for Science and International Security: I think the information is very persuasive that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor, and it was taking great steps to hide it from visual observation, it was getting help from North Korea, and it appeared quite determined to get it to operate.

Where I think the information is lacking is certain key things that would conclusively show Syria was engaged in trying to make nuclear weapons, things like you have to have a facility to separate plutonium in order to make a nuclear weapon.

There is no information about how Syria was going to actually get the uranium fuel to run the reactor, which is a little bit like finishing a car but not having any gasoline to run it.

And so there remain several questions where you have to be careful before you accuse Syria of having an active nuclear weapons program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Henry Sokolski, how do you size up the evidence?

HENRY SOKOLSKI, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center: Well, I agree with all the comments made, but it's perhaps a different take, which is it certainly looked like a duck and it walked like a duck. And I think what you can't find is always a problem. We tend not to find fuel-making facilities all the time.

How far along the project was is, perhaps, a matter of open dispute, but, boy, they were definitely gunning for plutonium production. There's no question of that. And you wait long enough, you'd have another Iran crisis for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say "we often," I think you said we often don't find uranium fuel facilities, what are you referring to?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, or processing facilities. I remember being in the Pentagon, and we debated for nearly a year as to what a photographed reprocessing plant at Yongbyon in North Korea was, whether it was a textile plant or not.

So even when it's in plain sight, we have disputes as to what's going on. And frequently it's not in plain sight.

You can hide some of these facilities, as we've found in the case of Natanz, which is the Iranian enrichment program, and it being out of sight for quite a while until it's fairly far along.

So I think even this plant took a long time to find. That's one of the most remarkable things about this story is we didn't picture it ourselves until late in the game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Albright, what about this argument that if it walks, quacks like a duck, it must be?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That's the kind of argument, unfortunately, that got us into a lot of trouble in Iraq and also in Iran. So I think you have to be very careful and find the evidence.

And particularly, if Syria is accused of having an active nuclear weapons program, that is different than accusing them of having a secret reactor, and particularly in a region where there's lots of tension...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's the difference?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the difference is, is that it's a much greater violation of the nonproliferation treaty if you can show that they were actively trying to build nuclear weapons, and particularly if it was further along.

Right now, Syria wasn't loading fuel into that reactor, because then the bombing showed that and the work after the bombing. And so they hadn't violated major international treaties.

But if they were -- if you can prove they were engaged in making nuclear weapons and you can have evidence of that, then it's a very serious issue. And in a region where -- or particularly with Syria bordering Israel, you have to always worry in these cases that it could escalate into a military confrontation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But very quickly, why would they have been building a facility to make plutonium if they weren't going to do something lethal with it?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, one is we don't know the purpose. I mean, it looks like they were building it to get plutonium. And you would think that it's probably for nuclear weapons.

But the point I'm making is that things can change and they can fail. For example, maybe they were going to depend on North Korea to provide the uranium, but North Korea was no longer going to provide that uranium, and they would have ended up with a machine that could never operate.

Role of North Korea under debate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me move to the question, Henry Sokolski, of why North Korea, if North Korea -- and the evidence seems, I guess, you're both saying it's pretty clear to you that North Korea was involved in this -- why were they helping the Syrians? What were they getting out of it?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, you know, lots of speculation. The intelligence officers said cash. There are any number of other possibilities, including everything from, well, maybe they hoped to continue to produce material there.

I mean, we don't know. This is one of the reasons why we don't try to gauge our policies or our verification system to intent, but rather to capabilities.

It's one of the things that the international inspectors, who were totally caught flat-footed on this, as well -- they just look for undeclared activity that's out of sorts. And this clearly was in that category.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think, Henry Sokolski, the administration is just now saying -- because this happened last September in 2007.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administration was aware activity...

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... were underway. Why are they putting it out now? And what does it is about U.S. policy going forward toward North Korea?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Really good question. I think the folks that want to push the further discussions and perhaps even dropping North Korea from the list of terrorist countries for U.S. trade purposes figure, well, maybe we need to just get this out of the way so that we can move ahead.

Hawks and critics of this approach point to this transgression, because actually North Korea was supposed to fess up to all of its export of nuclear activities last December. And they point to this and say, well, maybe we should kill the talks.

I'm not sure we really know who's winning this debate in the administration. My guess is that it'll end up with the talks continuing, but the focus of the talks being on getting the North Koreans to fess up to a lot more than they have.

More pressure to be put on DPRK

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know that Christopher Hill, who's the chief administration negotiator with the North Koreans, he was quoted yesterday as saying that any cooperation that did exist no longer exists.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes, there you go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that say anything to you, David Albright?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think the evidence points in that direction. I mean, even the CIA, when it was talking about this to the journalist, was talking about any assistance after the bombing was on damage assessment.

I mean, we know the North Koreans were near the site, probably at the reactor, and so they were looking at what happened, for sure. But I think what is important, though, is that, in engaging North Korea, negotiating with them, and being tough about it is that you want to get North Korea to stop this kind of activities.

We have no guarantee they're not selling something to another country. And so it's very important to try to draw North Korea in, into the negotiations, and insist in a verifiable manner that they stop this kind of illicit nuclear trade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly, Henry Sokolski, by making this public, is that likely to have that effect on -- is this likely to have that effect on the North Koreans?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, temporarily. I don't think any pledge from these folks amounts to much because we can't really verify until very late in the game after they cheat. And they have a record of seeing things very differently with regard to their obligations to anything they sign.

So I wouldn't get your hopes up on this one. And that's the reason why fessing up will be the focus from here on out for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final word here?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yes, I think they've said many things that have been verified to be true. I mean, they have shut down their plutonium production...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The North Koreans?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: The North Koreans have shut down their plutonium production capability and they're not making plutonium for nuclear weapons anymore, and that's verified, and that's true.

So on illicit trade, they are caught, and that can be verified. And more scrutiny internationally is very important to thwart and deter the North Koreans.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: You don't need a deal to do that. And I think we're going to have to start thinking bigger than whether or not we can prevent things by getting pledges from the North Koreans.

This is the 11th bombing of a nuclear reactor in the Middle East. Where we head it in general is a much bigger, more important question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, certainly an interesting story, and we thank both of you for helping shed some more light on it. David Albright with me, Henry Sokolski, thank you both. We appreciate it.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Thank you.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Thank you.